Matthew Ryan: An Appreciation
A condensed verison of the following essay appears as the liner notes for Matthew Ryan’s new album In the Dusk of Everything, available now.
For me, it all started with the voice.
Matthew Ryan is celebrated for his music and perhaps most of all for his lyrics, but it was that voice that hooked me, right in the opening seconds of his debut album May Day. “Here comes the razor of doubt/ Here comes the falling out ” A striking couplet to begin an album, to be sure, and in many ways a fitting prelude to every lyric that came from Ryan in the years to come. But the voice that delivered them to the ear was something else altogether—ragged, haunted, desperate. He sang at times through half clenched teeth, as though he just couldn’t keep the words in no matter how hard he tried.
May Day was a milestone in my own musical journey, both as a listener and as what little bit of a musician I’ve become myself. My most frequent collaborator will sometimes look at me and smile and say, “You’re doing that Matthew Ryan thing again.” That first album has great songs, classic songs, songs I would have given at least one or two fingers to write. Not just “Guilty,” but “Dam” and “Irrelevant” and “Chrome” and good goddamn, “The Lights of the Commodore Barry,” as gorgeous and transcendent a song as Tom Waits never wrote. These songs had more than a mere immediacy to them; they had an almost involuntary organic quality. Listening to May Day was like getting a blood transfusion directly from Ryan’s breaking heart to yours.
As his career progressed, Ryan’s writing moved in slightly different, and always fascinating, directions. After East Autumn Grin, a sort of May Day Volume 2 with some real gems of its own (“It’s heartache weather/ Please remember/ Things are gonna get worse/ Before they get better”), he moved into a space that could be labeled folktronica with 2003’s Regret Over the Wires. It was an intoxicating blend, the interplay between the slick beats and the gruff confessionalism of Ryan’s voice and lyrics.
One of my favorites of Ryan’s many great albums is Dear Lover (The Acoustic Version). Dear Lover is a standout among his folktronica explorations, but it was striking to hear those same songs stripped down and presented directly, without the embellishments and atmospherics. It was also a hell of a brave move.
It’s that same bravery, that same nakedness and vulnerability, that animates In the Dusk of Everything. In many ways, this record could be described as Ryan’s Nebraska. The record feels so damned personal, so direct, so unvarnished. The spare keyboards that are here are a dull grey, like the East Berlin skies of Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire, which Ryan admits “was running in my mind almost in a loop” during recording. Drums, bass and other instruments eventually make an appearance, but the overwhelming sense of the record is that Ryan went to the studio, sat down with a guitar, and just opened a vein.
It’s almost as if too much ornamentation might overshadow the words, and it’s so very important to Ryan that we hear what he’s saying, really hear it. And those words have such weight to them. Ryan can turn a clever phrase as well as anyone, but some of his most profound moments have come when he’s chewing over seemingly simple sentiments (“Did I say I’m sorry?/ I’m sorry/ I’m sorry now” he muttered obsessively, and memorably, in “Return to Me”). Here he spins gold from simplicity (“Where were you when the sun went down/ Where were you when all the hope left town/ I don’t care if you want me now/ It’s too late/ It’s too late/ It’s too late”). When he does allow himself a more literary flourish, it hits home all the stronger – “You’re someone’s salvation in a stupid world” might have sounded cornpone in, say, a Coldplay song, but here it’s so hard-won and hopeful, it sounds like Scripture.
In so many ways, In the Dusk of Everything is a companion piece to that first explosion of ragged magnificence, May Day. That record’s producer, David Ricketts, returned to help Ryan produce this one. They were seeking, Ryan says, “ a very wide but unadorned intimacy.” And like Dylan’s or Clapton’s or Tom Waits’, that fascinating voice is still the key to it all. It’s not as brawling and bruising and buttonholing as it was on May Day. Its desperation now is more soft-spoken, more introspective — more intense, in truth. Ryan says most of the songs on this record are “directed to the only person in the world that really makes sense to you,” and it shows in the vocals. He sings as if the world depends on you understanding what he’s saying.
And maybe, in a way, it does.