Despite attempts to disguise his voice behind a series of too-obvious influences, Matthew Ryan reveals in a whisper here and there his true, and worthy, vocal character.
I want to love Matthew Ryan, really I do. But he won't let me. Whether he's trying to adopt the earnest and dirty bellow of Bruce Springsteen, stealing Bob Dylan’s drawl, or spurring his band on to do their best Wilco impersonation, he's just so busy trying to be other people that he seems to have forgotten who he is himself. Oh, sure, sometimes the real Ryan peaks through, but most of the time he's too busy aping his favorite musicians and letting me know how much he's so very,very influenced by them that I don't know where they end and he begins.
It's a shame, because when he does find the confidence to write a song for himself and about himself the results are lovely. If it's spare and underproduced and a tad repetitive, "We Are Libertines" still steals the spot for best song because Ryan finally sounds comfortable with his scratchy old voice and his broken heart. He's not trying to impress anymore by parroting his favorites or with an attempted bit of rock 'n roll rollicking and he's not putting on an optimistic grin that'd do the Boss proud. He ain't got time for that! Instead what he's offering up is heartbreak without pretense, a cold slice of melancholy, a song about people who feel so defeated, their efforts so futile, that all they can do is label themselves over and over again ("We are libertines..."). When they stop proclaiming their identities, the song ends, as if in losing that tag they, too, ceased to be. It's an urgent cry for help and a verbal shove in one and it works about as well as any piece of alternative country in history. So Ryan may botch the ending of "You're Not Happy" by wailing over those guitars, guitars which work for so much of the song because they stay distorted and removed and always seem to be receding, but damn it, he wrings such glacial waters out of himself with this number it's forgivable that he might sprinkle a little sugar in there, make the whole thing a tad bit more palatable.
Why he ignores these gifts in favor of playing parrot, though, well, that's what baffles. Ryan's chilly wheeze isn't built to ballast but damn it if he doesn't try and make it do exactly that. A number like "Boxers" has got too much body. It's too damn big and loud for Ryan's meager voice. Those banging drums and shredding guitars drown it out so he feels he's got to adapt and that means adopt and so now he's doing his best Bruce Springsteen imitation, but it's not working because Ryan's voice is too stringy to ever match the Boss' muscular yawp. He can't inspire with the rangy character of his vocals, so it makes about no sense at all when he tries to rally the listener with "This One's For You Frankie". When he tries for stranger registers -- and believe you me, "The First Heartbreak" finds him crowing and mooning like a man caught somewhere between Tom Petty and Bob Dylan -- the oddity is not arresting but rather distancing and boy if it doesn't pull down the momentum of songs so eager with their unflagging tempos and soaring guitars and thunderous percussion to be inspiring. Rock and roll calls for a vocalist who can make the excitement of the music immediate, but Ryan sounds so removed from everything he sings that it leaves the listener feeling distanced, too.
Now sometimes this isn't the case and Ryan tries and reaches for a style he can match. The problem, though, is that while he sure as hell can sound like old alt-country bands from the '90s he kind of misses, there might be a reason everyone moved on from there. Nobody wants to hear another song like "Suffer No More" because we all heard that a thousand times when half the country kids decided they wanted to be cool, half the rockers decided they wanted to be earthy, and so everyone just went and ripped off Wilco's AM or Son Volt’s Trace. There's no good reason why "Then She Threw Me Like a Handgrenade" (which really does have a lovely title) should have to sound so much like a discarded Wilco song or why Ryan has to try and beat Tweedy at this game, not when Ryan's working in the kinds of low-key and mid-tempo styles that accommodate him so well.
These shenanigans make you just want to shake the man until his brain hits his skull and the resulting smack straightens out whatever flabby thought processes have him left thinking he's gotta be every one of his inspirations instead of being, well, Matthew Ryan. Boxers isn't a shame of an album, but it wastes so much time being a mediocre imitation when it should be great. This is nothing new, this criticism, Ryan’s been weathering it practically all of his career. I have to wonder, however, what causes a musician so obviously talented and with a voice all his own to not only ape other artists but to ape them year in and year out. The answer might lie in the style of his best music. Both “We Are Libertines” and “If You’re Not Happy” find Ryan at his best and, not coincidentally, his most vulnerable. He’s one big, exposed nerve on both songs, the tremble in his voice indicative of real pain and effort. No Depression Magazine once described his voice as “a hushed rasp, with words catching like vows destined to be broken," a description both promising and ominous and, finally, sadly fulfilling. The vow broken is the promise of Ryan’s own talent, every pale imitation he offers in place of a sincere effort a reminder that with a tad more courage or the proper kick in the ass Ryan could -- should -- be one of the best vocalists in the alternative country scene.