Lawrence Matthews was ready to retire his musical alter-ego Don Lifted in late 2019. "I felt like I was at the end of what that body of work was," he told his local alt-weekly, The Memphis Flyer, in an interview published last week. "I was just not where I wanted to be." He'd booked a cross-country tour, hoping but hardly expecting that something would come of it, taking two albums worth of material — lo-fi rap and R&B that embraced shoegaze and experimental indie textures, promising and peculiar music that hadn't taken him as far as he'd deserved — on the road for what he thought would be the final time.
Matthews would have been busy either way. A talented painter and photographer with a fine arts degree from the University of Memphis, he works as the Gallery Director at Tone, a Memphis non-profit built by and for Black artists, creatives, and communities. But Don Lifted wasn't dead yet. Matt Ross-Spang, who's produced albums for Margo Price and the Mountain Goats and engineered albums by John Prine and Jason Isbell, wandered into Don Lifted's hometown show on that tour. Taken by the performance, he called a friend at Fat Possum Records, home to Spiritualized, Empath, and X, and told them to pay attention to Matthews's music.
Two years on, Matthews is releasing 325i, his Fat Possum debut as Don Lifted. The album isn't a radical departure from his earlier work; Frank Ocean, Bon Iver, and Radiohead are still Matthews's clearest musical influences. But Matthews has sharpened his sound, maturing as a songwriter and producer. He's not pushing his voice to dominate the mix anymore, instead content to dissolve into the liquid guitars that anchor most tracks.
The ten songs here sound painfully lonely, whether he's trying to articulate unrequited love or obliquely referencing the protests that swept the country last year. Just about every album released in 2021 has been a product of the pandemic in some sense, but few seem to have been shaped by it so thoroughly, and fewer still capture the feeling of locked-down anxiety, dejection, and intimacy so viscerally. Even when the track cuts, as it does at the end of borderline-meditative standout "Lost In Orion" to the sound of what seems to be his family laughing, the songs still seem to be set inside Matthews's head. That's somewhere you'll find yourself wanting to stay, despite the time the album was made and the challenges he clearly faced in writing through it.
"This record has been an exploration of self," Matthews wrote in a statement to The FADER. "My love and how it shapes who I am… A series of abstract stories and extended metaphors airier and more poetic than my previous works; ending with a new understanding of what life and love are for me at this stage of my journey."
Listen to 325i in full below ahead of its release tomorrow, October 22, via Fat Possum.