From his early incarnations as a Springsteenesque songwriter to his string of stripped, acoustic albums to a more recent venture with Neilson Hubbard as the electronic tinged Strays Don’t Sleep, Matthew Ryan is clearly not a singer-songwriter content with a repetitive sonic template. Sure, Regret Over Wires and Strays Don’t Sleep aren’t exactly ground-breaking or even particularly inventive in their musical strivings, but the pursuit of new sounds and arrangements is admirable.
Or is it?
Throughout his varied musical efforts, Ryan’s lyrics have never suffered, and I am happy to say that they are still poignant offerings here. But what seems to be missing in his electronic tinged songs is, essentially, the grain of his voice. The frantic desperation of songs like “Watch Your Step” and “Sadly Love” is gone, as is the quieter desperation of songs like “Devastation”. In place of the desperation, we find moods.
Moods can be pathologically convicting, no doubt. On the album’s gently-soaring opening track, “Follow the Leader”, Ryan intones “let’s follow the leader baby/that’s how its gonna be/if you ever really wanna get lost/then follow me” to a repetitive piano figure and swirling electronic winds. But most of the time, however, the production serves as not a distraction (except on the trite “Everbody Always Leaves”) but as a failed alternative; that is, different for the sake of being different.
For example, “And Never Looked Back”, the album’s second track, is not improved by having a drum machine; in fact, it lessens the emotional resonance of the otherwise strong track. Same goes for the treated vocals on the album’s only all-out rocker, “Love Is a Silencer”. “Babybird”, perhaps the album’s strongest track, is classic early Ryan, with some drum machine embellishments and a shoegazer-ish droning distorted electric guitar. The song would have been more acute, more poignant, more immediate with acoustic drums. In other words, the mood play of From a Late Night High Rise softens the emotional punch.
“The Complete Family”, the album’s spoken word with cinematic musical apparatus closing track, is an incredibly personal song. Having recently suffered the death of a close friend and the sentencing of his brother to 30 years in prison, we can hear Ryan coping with these turns of events in this song (as well as in “Gone for Good” and “Victory Waltz”). But for such incredibly sad and private events, these songs are surprisingly polished, his voice restrained.
I miss the rawness.