“For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these ‘it might have been’”, poet John Greenleaf Whittier once wrote in Maud Muller, and it’s hard not to recall these words listening to Matthew Jay’s ‘Holy Details’. Much like Jay’s life, they speak volumes of unfulfilled possibilities and dreams cut sadly short.
Jay – who died mysteriously in a still unexplained incident at a friend’s London apartment in 2003, aged just 24 – was a figure wealthy in talent and opportunity at the time of his death. Having raked in comparisons to Jeff Buckley, Nick Drake and Elliott Smith – to whom he looks strikingly similar at times – Jay released his debut album Draw to critical lauding in 2001.
At the time of his untimely passing, he’d begun working on new material that took inspiration from a wider musical universe than the wistful, indie-folk that marked DRAW; a selection of which was released posthumously in 2008 as Further Than Tomorrow.
To mark what would’ve been Jay’s 34th birthday this year, his family are releasing a new, previously unheard, track titled ‘Holy Details’, which showcases the songwriter’s ever-expanding sonic palette. It sees Jay fuse scratchy, Elliott Smith-esque guitars and whispered harmonies to hip-hop beats – something he was most likely inspired to do by a 2001 US tour, from which he returned clutching Dre and Eminem CDs.
It’s a hugely affecting listen; particularly when Jay sounds hugely optimistic about life and his future, sweetly singing: “Life ain’t so bad in the trees, I throw my worries to the breeze.” It’s a line that revels in the pastoral peacefulness of Nick Drake or Vashti Bunyan, albeit against a very 21st century musical backdrop.
Of course, it’s possible to over-analyse everything when listening to someone’s music following their death – let’s face it, we’ve all wondered what would’ve happened had Buckley not walked into that river or Cobain not married Courtney Love – but ‘Holy Details’ is a song that, posthumous or not, seems destined to get under the skin.
Sure, it’s hard not to get bogged down in the might’ve beens surrounding Jay, but in leaving behind such a rich – if minimal – audible legacy, he’s ripe for rediscovery. ‘Holy Details’ may just be the harbinger for this.