A chugging acoustic rhythm pitches us straight into a composition combining old-school know-how with a 21st-century, artisanal vibe. “Battle Born” is built upon a procession of careful, heartfelt chords and a melody at once deep and understated. The song sounds tough and tender at the same time; Matuskiewicz’s unassuming vocals recall a long-lost classic-rock troubadour, pushing us forward with a sort of weary tenacity suiting well the titular phrase. There’s a bit of processing involved but mostly it’s just the Joe Walsh-ian grain of his voice that convinces.
The song has a backstory, and I will quickly note that as songs go I’m not a backstory person. I mean, it’s fine if a song has one but I don’t feel it too often benefits me as a listener to be distracted by concrete details of one particular situation. Given the inherent notionality of music—absent words, a song can only ever suggest—I’m usually on board with songwriters who, even with their words, remain at the doorstep of suggestion. So, I appreciate here that Matuskiewicz, however specific (and difficult) the circumstance that inspired the song, has spun an elusive tale rather than anything on the nose. (And, okay, not to be a tease, the backstory here is that Matuskiewicz had been watching his girlfriend going through debilitating chemotherapy, and wrote the song as an outlet for this difficult experience.) I’m even more on board with songwriters with an unwavering sense of syllabic integrity, and Matuskiewicz’s lyrics scan impeccably. I might indeed argue that it’s proper scanning that can most effectively elevate lyrics; phrases that hold tight to the rhythm can soar with the freedom of musical imagination (see: “An angel came while I was drinking lemonade” [1:06]), while clunky phrasing does just that—brings a narrative clunking down to the uninteresting earth.
Matuskiewicz is a Brooklyn-based musician who is currently in the trio Shapes on Tape, and previously in the Lexington, Kentucky-based band Candidate. “Battle Born” was released as a single in November; it will appear on a forthcoming solo EP. Thanks to Jason for the MP3, and for his patient answering of my pestering questions.