Matt Hannah stitches together an Americana fantasy on 'Dreamland'
Friday, February 24, 2017 by Jerard Fagerberg in CITYPAGES Music
Life isn’t how we imagine or remember it. Dreams hold no allegiance to reality.
Though pieced together from memories, dreams are soiled by fantasy and archetype. They’re idealistic, romantic, imaginary. For a songwriter like Minneapolis Americana folk musician Matt Hannah, sorting the real from the fabricated can be an impossible task.
That’s why, on his new LP Dreamland (out February 14 on Gamine Records), Hannah dispenses with the effort. Without surrendering to the unreality of dreams, Hannah finds a way to live inside the contradiction they present.
“I’m not 100% anti-nostalgia, but there is this tension between what’s real and what isn’t,” Hannah says. “Looking back is an idealized picture. Dreamland kind of says that.”
Dreamland opens with a drift. Entering with the title track, Hannah sets up a conceit where the sleeping world blends into the waking one, signaled by Hannah’s calm, relenting sendoff of “and we go to dreamland.”
While dreaming, the mind synthesizes memories, experiences, and ideals into composites. The process is therapeutic, allowing the brain to organize and decompress. On Dreamland, Hannah uses his songwriting to the exact same effect -- blending the three years of Hannah’s life since his debut Let the Lonely Fade with fragments of his personal history and the storied iconography of country music.
On “Broken Hearts and Broken Bones” Hannah recollects meeting and falling in love with his wife over a classic barroom stomp, and “Dandelion” presents a kaleidoscope of nonspecific relationships alongside a drifter’s yarn. Adding depth to both songs is the lonesome call of the pedal steel -- a near-cliche in the world of western country that, in the hands of Aaron Fabbrini, creates an instant point of recognition in an otherwise hazy world.
“I love the pedal steel stuff Pete Drake did -- Tammy Wynette, Bob Dylan, all those people,” Hannah says. “I always really liked the sound, but you have to be tasteful and find a balance, and I think Aaron is so great at finding that space and creating a mood.”
The big pedal steel flourishes and grifter croon have led many, including the Star Tribune’s Chris Riemenschneider, to to pull out comparisons to Son Volt and its smoky, impressionistic frontman Jay Farrar. Others are drawn in by the similarities to Dinosaur Jr. and Uncle Tupelo, or reach back even further to Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings. Hannah is flattered by all this. Working in a genre that so rich in antecedents, he saw it coming. That was his challenge in creating Dreamland -- to build an experience that was personal and unique but also recognizable on an instinctual level.
“I felt like I fell into the trappings of those cliches on my previous CD,” Hannah says. “It’s the Hank Williams thing. Fatalistic. ‘Life sucks, then you die.’ When I started doing acoustic music, I wanted to work in that way. Then I started to mistrust that. I wanted to paint a picture of the kind of world I envision.”
Not until the album’s fifth song, “Banks of the Mississippi,” do we glimpse Hannah’s objective reality for the first time. A tune of affirmation, “Banks” lucidly tells of Hannah leaving the hovel of New York City to discover a home in Minneapolis.
“I’m yearning for a sense of home, a sense of place,” Hannah says. “Before I moved here, I traveled around and saw a lot of places, but my wife and I felt really grounded here. We felt like this was the place we wanted to be. I’ve been to all these places, but this place really seems to have something.”
What cemented Minneapolis in Hannah’s heart was the city’s proximity to nature. A Michigan native, Hannah has long relied on nature to dissolve the anxieties of both real and imagined life. It’s recurring theme on Dreamland, popping up most notably on “Different Kind of Light” and “The Night Is My Home.” Awash in the internal world, it’s the only place he finds release.
“There’s something about getting out into nature that gives you more perspective about your place,” he says. “Remember, having been out in Montana and going back to the city and hearing people talk about how big a building is, and I was like, ‘Yeah, but I just saw a mountain.’ Something for me is resolved in that.”
As Dreamland edges towards its ultimate awakening -- a moment that comes gently and unambiguously on the closing track “Morning Song” -- you hear Hannah reconcile his dreams with the same “big mountain” perspective. Whether it be in nature or beneath his duvet, Hannah’s solace comes in acceptance.
Though he sets off to sleep with ambitions of reclaiming objectivity from the dishonest may of the dream world, Hannah emerges from Dreamland with the knowledge that, for all his trying, the most he’s able to accomplish is to recognize that influence. He awakes with it unconquered, but spurred with purpose.
“The songs are rooted in unreality or fantasy, but [they’re] also about clarity,” Hannah says. “These little things don’t matter because I’m here a finite amount of time, and I’ve got some work to do and some kindness to repay.”