Reaching the masses by stripping down and reinventing a pop-friendly sound

Bob Dylan has worked with some interesting collaborators over the years, but singer and songwriter Matt Nathanson believes the rock legend missed out on one that would have been particularly interesting. “I’ve always said if Bob Dylan had written lyrics for Def Leppard, he’d have had the perfect band,” Nathanson says. As that unusual rock fantasy suggests, he believes in blending art and commerce, poetry and pop hooks. Recording Modern Love, the follow-up to his 2007 breakthrough, Some Mad Hope, the San Francisco-based singer-songwriter sought to emulate the blockbuster albums he also sees as artistic triumphs. “For me, making records is always aiming for your favorite records,” he says. “That was the only expectation on my end: Let’s make INXS’s Kick or Violator by Depeche Mode.”

Counterintuitively, in this case that meant less was more. Nathanson at first approached Modern Love much as he had his previous six albums, tracking the songs with a live band. It wasn’t until the game-changing tune “Kiss Quick” that he and production and songwriting partner Mark Weinberg stumbled across the recording technique that would lead Nathanson into more adventurous sonic terrain. “During the moment of creation, there’s sometimes this feeling of, ‘This one is totally important,’ and ‘Kiss Quick’ felt that way,” Nathanson says. “It sounded good, but it sounded wrong.”

The fix was to strip away the rhythm track and have Death Cab for Cutie drummer Jason McGerr record a new beat, which was looped and layered over the original vocal. Nathanson then rerecorded the keyboard and guitars, creating an atmospheric sound reminiscent of U2, another key influence. “It was taming the rhythm,” Nathanson says. “In that process, the song opened up.” “Kiss Quick” set the template for the rest of Modern Love, reinforcing one of Nathanson’s major rules of recording: “The song is god. Listen to what it wants. What it wants is usually way less instrumentation and way more subtlety.”

Although Nathanson’s last album spawned the single “Come on Get Higher,” which sold more than a million downloads, the rocker says he didn’t feel any pressure to one-up himself. “The success of the last record happened at a really levelheaded time in my career,” says Nathanson, who at 38 has been making music for nearly 20 years. “At that point, making records became less about pleasing other people and more about pleasing myself.”

–Kenneth Partridge

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