Nearly 30 years ago, Jonathan Richman asked how the Velvet Underground got their sound. The band Mattiel seem to have cracked the code on “Millionaire,” the latest single to be released off the Atlanta group’s excellent Satis Factory album. Amid brittle guitars, laconically Lou Reed-esque “bah-bah-bah” backup vocals, and a thwapping backbeat, singer Mattiel Brown channels Nico with her gorgeously yearning, full-voiced alto range, as sings about her poor lot in life.
Brown has said that the song was inspired by “high expectations and empty promises,” the exact mathematical formula that adds up to big disappointment. “Took a hundred years to get this microphone,” she sings at the start of the song, “Now I want to sell everything I own.” She never fully articulates just what caused her to feel so bemused, but the tone in her voice when she sings the refrain, “Might as well be a millionaire,” says it all: She has no hope.
She plays up that sense of desperation in the song’s video, in which she visits what should be a happy place, a fair with a rodeo, but fills the clip with closeups of people looking disappointed. (The one girl smiling early on is wearing a confederate-flag cowboy hat, so make of that what you will.) By and large, though, there’s comfort in seeing so many people sharing in Brown’s displeasure.
“Did you expect a guarantee, working in that satis-factory,” she asks in the bridge (apparently she’s not so crestfallen as to avoid wordplay) but it’s the tone in her voice, not her lyrics, that expresses this feeling of what the Portuguese call saudade, a sort of longing for love you know you’ll never get, that makes the song so irresistibly melancholy. It’s something we’ve all felt and can share together, like the people in the song’s video, and it’s the inexplicable quality that Jonathan Richman so badly wanted to define. It’s a good thing Mattiel figured it out.
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