vulture bets on berry

Guess Who We Think Should Write the Definitive COVID Anthem?

Hello, dealer? Yes, please, put it all on Berry. Illustration: by Carolyn Figel

These are hard times, and when things get really dark, we at Vulture like to double down on the things that are still capable of bringing us happiness. That’s why we’re running this recurring column, which serves as half-celebration and half-brainstorm for someone we’re consistently delighted to see on our screens: the beloved British performer of stage and screen Matt Berry. He’s best known for shows like Toast of LondonThe IT Crowd, and What We Do in the Shadows, but we’re confident that a performance by Berry would spruce up all sorts of film and TV stories, big and small. 

So a few times a month, we’ll be using this space to propose new, occasionally out-of-the-box opportunities or roles for Mr. Berry. We are confident that should he ever find this column, he will find it both confusing and mortifying.

It’s hard to know what to do with the feeling of spring arriving in 2021. Flowers are blooming, and robins are hopping around on green lawns. Vaccination rates across the United States climb higher every day, and everywhere there’s a tentative feeling of hope. Maybe this summer or fall we can feel a little, tiny bit better. Maybe we can get back at least some of the things we’ve missed so much over the past year. But it’s such a tender, uncertain feeling. There are all kinds of frightening threats still lurking — variants, long-term symptoms, entrenched vaccine hesitance, racism, and violence. And we’ve lost so many people, so much of our lives. We’ve lost far, far more than we’ve had time to process or even fully count yet. What should we do with all these emotions? How can we begin to express them?

There is no single answer to those questions. There will be many memorials and many stories that still need to be told. One thing that might help, though, is an anthem. It should be a song we can all sing to remember this time, to honor it and mourn it, but also to celebrate the hope that we might be able to move past it.

I’m basically imagining something like “We Are the World,” but less grandiose, a little more wounded, and 100 percent less Michael Jackson-y. And I know just the man for the job. It’s Matt Berry.

We think of Berry primarily as a comic actor, but when you watch almost any interview with him, it’s pretty clear that Berry sees himself as a musician who happens to be an actor sometimes. He’s not a voluble interviewee in most circumstances, but that changes when someone asks about his most recent musical work — it’s the only thing he obviously loves to talk about, and if you look at his career, it also seems like what he wants to spend most of his time doing. He wrote all the music for Snuff Box and Toast of London, he’s recorded six studio albums, and he regularly tours with several bands. He even writes and records TV theme music!

You know the Dancing With the Stars theme? With a guy yelling “Hey!” and a twanging guitar theme? That guitar is being played by Matt Berry. The guy yelling “Hey”? ALSO MATT BERRY.

We’ve covered Berry’s musical talents in this column already, but it’s almost always been in service of explaining why he’s perfect for a different role. Berry should be Santa for many reasons, including that he wrote a rock opera about the birth of Christ. Berry should play most of the roles in Phantom of the Opera, in part because he obviously has the chops, and Berry should be a Twitch streamer to share more of his music with the world. But Berry should write a COVID anthem because his music has exactly the right blend of pop-melodic skill, wall-of-sound production style, and wistful, thoughtful sweetness to create something that would be really lovely for a project like this.

Consider “Take My Hand,” from Berry’s 2009 album Witchazel. It begins with an incredibly catchy piano riff, a melody that’s immediately easy to hum but is also already filled out with full chords. The melody repeats, now with the background crescendo of a super-lush cymbal build, and then again when the song finally arrives at the chorus, now filled even more with percussion, guitar, and horn section. Berry layers track after track on top of his voice, creating this feeling of dozens of people all singing together. It is big and triumphant — anthemic, even — but it’s also restrained, a little unsure. “So take my hand,” Berry sings. “We’ll disappear to a pub that’s not too far from here.” The music is huge, the singer is pleading, but the stakes are very small.

Something too on the nose or too direct about what the last year has felt like is going to miss the mark. Nobody on this earth wants to shout along with a song called “Social Distance,” or one that tries to rhyme “COVID” with “lid” or “skid” or “kid” or “slid.” But something like this — something catchy, singable, relatable, and sweet, with a huge sound — could really hit the spot, especially if it’s also layered with yearning for small, simple things. And Berry has written lots of songs like this. Witchazel is my favorite of his oeuvre, but he has a real penchant for reworking big, popular sounds and turning them a little odd, just a bit stranger and more ear-catching.

Berry also has a history of making music that incorporates broad, big-scale input. He wrote a Christmas song several years ago that involved asking people from all over the U.K. to send in audio of themselves singing the chorus. That approach might also be too obvious for a COVID anthem, but it points to Berry’s interest in music for everyone, music that incorporates many experiences and many voices. What could be better for a song written to commemorate a time when we’ve been so alone, a year when singing together was not just difficult, but incredibly dangerous?

We need a COVID anthem, something that will always be associated with this time, a way to encapsulate all our feelings of grief and fear and hope. And, yes, there are lots of artists who could do it. If Beyoncé’s available, for instance, I think she’d sing a great one. But a Berry anthem would be really special. He loves to balance his voice in the overall production so it becomes almost part of the background, one small piece of a big, clamorous whole. What a lovely song it could be, especially when it’s safe for us all to sing it together.

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Guess Who We Think Should Write the Definitive COVID Anthem?