It’s easy to understand why some people think all Matthew Ryan songs sound the same. At the forefront of all of his songs is that raspy voice, sounding like Ryan’s vocal cords are coated in fine-grained sand. As a result, Ryan’s words don’t spring to life so much as they slowly lift themselves up and start wafting their way through the song. That’s probably not going to change, as it’s been that way since 1997’s May Day started drawing Springsteen comparisons.
I say this as a fan of Ryan, who’s watched him walk away from the promises and perils of such comparisons to create a string of albums (Dear Lover is his 12th) that feel increasingly insular and cathartic. Ryan sings passionately about things that matter to him, whether he’s singing about a breakup or covering the Clash’s “Somebody Got Murdered”, and he generally takes the shortest route he can find to get there. There’s an abundance of bombastic swells of music, hooks to sing along with, or catchy melodies to carry you along. It’s probably not fair to call Ryan a minimalist at this point, but even last year’s Matthew Ryan vs. the Silver State — his rock record — was a wiry affair that somehow turned its punk and indie roots into something more subconscious-nudging than fist-pumping.
So it’s no surprise that Dear Lover continues in that vein, even if it strikes this listener as lean and mean even by Ryan standards. The guitars don’t breathe and resonate so much as they grind and churn, often complemented by simple piano patterns, plaintive strings, and brisk percussion. At its brightest, as on “The Wilderness”, that guitar sound contains an Edge-like ring, but it’s more generally put to use as a set of no-muss-no-fuss gears to keep the songs moving. There are exceptions, such as the acoustic guitar/piano combo of “Some Streets Lead Nowhere”, the brisk fingerpicking and relatively upbeat vocals of “Your Museum”, and the tense harmonica flourishes of “PS” that find their way to a nice, mournful violin coda. Perhaps the most dramatic exceptions come from “We Are Snowmen”‘s jittery drum machine backing, or the trance beat that defines “Spark” (featuring DJ Preach). Both songs find Ryan trying something new, with “Spark” working especially well.
Dear Lover also continues in the vein of recent albums, such as 2006’s From a Late Night High Rise and Matthew Ryan vs. the Silver State, that offer more autobiographical material. Traditional story songs like Concussion‘s “Night Watchman” or “Chickering Angel” are increasingly rare. There are still stories on Dear Lover, but they’re on such a personal level, dealing with the highs and lows of relationships, that only Ryan can be sure of what’s fact and what’s fiction. It’s also another record where Ryan’s vision is best taken whole-cloth, from start to finish.
If Dear Lover has a problem, it may be that it calls for a certain mood. Taken over the course of an entire album, Ryan’s sound can be wearying if your mindset isn’t aligned with his songs. Like Richard Buckner, Ryan seems increasingly interested in keeping his songs in a very internal place, and it’s not one where many listeners can always reside. If Matthew Ryan were worried about that sort of thing, though, he never would have transcended those comparisons to Springsteen and various heartland rockers all those years ago.