Matt Nathanson's 2013 effort, Last of the Great Pretenders, picks up on the glossy, melodic pop of 2011's Modern Love with a batch of catchy, radio-ready songs loosely conceptualized around Nathanson's adopted home of San Francisco. Although born in Massachusetts, Nathanson relocated to San Francisco in the '90s and built his career. Listening to Last of the Great Pretenders, one gets the sense that Nathanson's experiences living in the city shaped his songwriting, and the album comes off as part diary entry, part love letter. Nathanson has always had a knack for coming up with evocative, concrete imagery to hang his deeply romantic songs on, and San Francisco offers up plenty for him to draw upon. Primarily, he seems interested in the way his lovers and his memories of them seem to be entangled with his perceptions of the city. In "Kinks Shirt," he sings, "It's all there in your red fingernails/It's all there in your pigtails...can't stop thinking about the girl in the Kinks' shirt/Take me home, San Francisco." In "Annie's Always Waiting (For the Next One to Leave)," a dramatic anthem ready-made for a film soundtrack, Nathanson sings about talking to a girl under the Golden Gate Bridge. He sings, "She had a master's degree in disappointment, that's what she said to me/Laughed when she said it, flat on our backs in the grass out at Crissy Field." With Modern Love, Nathanson colored his yearning, singer/songwriter compositions with keyboards, electric guitars, horns, backing vocals, and even some light electronic flourishes. On Last of the Great Pretenders, Nathanson sticks to this same formula, striking a balance between the adult contemporary styling of Sarah Bareilles and the more indie-oriented approach of bands like MGMT. Which is to say that while Nathanson remains a thoughtful mainstream artist, the tracks on Last of the Great Pretenders have an urgent, creative energy that seems to harken back to his much earlier albums. Perhaps that is fitting, considering the album's tone of youthful exuberance and melancholy wonder, with Nathanson often ruminating on summers past spent in a "Berkeley basement," with "half read books and bold declarations," as he does on "Last Days of Summer in San Francisco." Ultimately, with Last of the Great Pretenders, Nathanson turns his memories of the city by the bay into a universally relatable metaphor for coming of age, reminding us how a place can hold sway over your identity long after you've moved on. As he sings on "Earthquake Weather," "I close my eyes, and I dream about you/Dream about you/Sun so bright, I'm just a shadow that's fading out."
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AllMusic Review by Matt Collar