Odes to Hope
“The little things, the little things mean everything”, Matthew Ryan belts out on the second track of his latest effort, Regret Over the Wires. And do they ever.
This isn’t your usual, dour Matthew Ryan.
This isn’t his debut, 1997’s May Day, full of brittle, dark, and sparsely accompanied poetry. It’s not 2000’s East Autumn Grin, more of a rocker but still with that same dreary outlook on things. Concussion (2001) did a lot to cement Ryan’s place alongside the likes of Nick Drake, Heartbreaker-era Ryan Adams, or Nebraska-period Bruce Springsteen, but its bleak, mid-tempo meanderings wore thin on repeated listens. He followed that up with two Internet-only releases—Dissent from the Living Room and Hopeless to Hopeful—that sounded scattered and rushed.
Of that prodigious catalogue, both May Day and Concussion had their moments. But nothing, it’s safe to say, could have prepared us for the gem Ryan has delivered with Regret Over the Wires.
He’s mostly abandoned that stripped-down, recorded-in-the-kitchen-with-a-broken-heart sound for a fuller, pop-influenced vibe that puts him comfortably alongside Joe Pernice and Josh Rouse. While not completely throwing out the baby with the bath water, he’s augmented the things that have always been his strengths—blue-collar, poetic songwriting and curious hooks—with perfectly understated touches of dulcimer, mandolin, organ, cello, violin, and pedal steel. It’s a more produced sound, but one that sounds completely organic—like this is the way Matthew Ryan was supposed to sound all along.
It comes together nicely on the third track, “Trouble Doll”, which showcases the more tender side of Ryan’s lyrics with the help of Bucky Baxter on pedal steel. The music actually shimmers, an adjective that wouldn’t have been caught dead next to Ryan’s name prior to Regret over the Wires. And Ryan’s songwriting is as good as it’s ever been: “Salvation watches over you / Redemption only borrows you / A little at a time in this world”.
On “Long Blvd.”, Ryan achieves the sound the other Ryan (Adams) has been trying for since Heartbreaker. It’s a heart-aching mix between the folky heritage of Dylan and modern rock. Yes, it borders on Goo Goo Dolls-esque cheesiness, but somehow it manages to transcend that. Maybe it’s Matt Slocum’s cello, or Molly Thomas and Aaron Till’s violin. Or maybe it’s even “littler” things than that. You’d be amazed what a tamborine (say thanks to David Bianco) can do for a song.
He sounds more like Pinkhearts-style R.A. on “I Can’t Steal You” and “Come Home”, but here it sounds like it should—an anthem for a top-down drive along a deserted big city boulevard, the night swooshing past, as you mope in your own sorrow. It sounds pathetic, but it doesn’t come out that way at all in Ryan’s hands.
For those fans who miss the plaintive ballads of May Day or Concussion, Ryan offers up an ode in the very best of that tradition with “Every Good Thing”. While a slow-mover, the hook is still infectious and Ryan’s simple but emotional pulls on the guitar are deceptively clever. Originally titled “Songs for Sons”, it’s a father’s wish for his son to have “every good thing”: “I know you’re sleepin’ on rocks, where the temperature drops / What you thought it was, you know it’s not / There’s just so many things, that this living brings / Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it stings / Oh, my little man, try to understand / I never meant to set you up / I only wanted to protect you”.
It’s a song that still has somewhat dark, cynical outlook—who else would wonder if birth is a set up?—but it also shows something that Ryan seemed to be short on in previous records: hope. It may be a little thing, but it’s something you never want to lose touch with—in music or life.