During World War II, the German Tiger tank was so colossally destructive that Allied soldiers developed a psychological fear of it, refusing to engage it in open combat. And while Matt Sheehy claims he just likes the sound of the word, the title of his first solo album, Tigerphobia, is a perfect analogy for the album's themes of turning gun shy after getting emotionally burned. The songs deal with the dissolution of a musical partnership and the end of a romantic relationship, but any fears and frustrations are challenged, and ultimately beaten, by hope and discovery of the self.
It's a beautiful album, on which every tune is spectacularly good; the songwriting is potent, emotional, poetic, and engaging, with catchy melodies and inventive arrangements. You'll find yourself sharing it with friends like a joyful secret, or singing it out loud in the car, or putting a song on a mixtape for someone to whom you need to say something important but can't quite put it into words. Sheehy has done the work of processing all the difficult emotions, and the acoustic-based songs on Tigerphobia are the wholly pleasurable result.
The record came about after the dissolution of Sheehy's duo Gravity and Henry. "[Bandmate Jarhid Brown] got married, and he really stopped liking going out on the road, whereas I've always really liked it," says Sheehy. "We got offered a record deal, but then his wife found out she was pregnant, so he just made the decision that he wanted to start a family. We had put so much work into the band, but I wasn't really that upset. I felt like it opened up a lot of doors."
Preceded by a prologue of piano and strings performed by Brent Knopf of Menomena and Peter Broderick, "Go Missing" encapsulates the soulful grace of Tigerphobia. An ascending plucked guitar is soon layered with clicking, chirping sounds, and the song's desolation turns into affirmation as the gorgeous melodic phrases repeat and gain power. Sheehy recorded it alone in a cabin, using furniture for percussion.
"Right around the time that Jarhid and I stopped playing together, I got involved in a relationship that ended when I started writing all these songs," Sheehy says. "It was a time in my life that was very transitional. I moved to the coast for six months by myself and worked in the woods [as a forester]. I know that sounds kind of sad, but it didn't feel sad—it felt really good. I didn't really start thinking I was going to make a record; they were quiet songs I was just playing for myself. So a lot of those songs are about finding new direction and working out the choices that you've made."
Of course, Tigerphobia's not all feelings and self-discovery. Many of the songs are influenced by science-fiction stories, including "Dangerous Thursdays," about a telekinetic girl, and "Top of the World," which was inspired by the haunted space station in 1972's Solaris, a Russian film that explores the themes of projecting one's ideals onto another person.
Tigerphobia—the first album on Sheehy's own label, Revolve Records—celebrates its release this Saturday, June 7, with a number of Portland musicians, including drummer Drew Shoals, pianist Matt Weiers, and singer Y la Bamba. But while it showcases the Portland music community, Tigerphobia is good enough to withstand any "local music" tag. It's simply a terrific album, for anyone, anywhere.