Ryan teams up with longtime friends to create robust music that's the equal of his weighty rasp.
Throughout his career, Matthew Ryan's often been pegged as a heartland rocker in the vein of John Cougar Mellencamp or Bruce Springsteen. But those comparisons have always felt a little superficial, since Ryan has often been more likely to explore emotional landscapes than anything you could find on a road map. Often couching his lyrics in quiet and sombre arrangements, Ryan doesn't seem to sing as much as he just lets the rasping vocals seep from his body. On his best songs, such as "Night Watchman" or "Time and Time Only", the effect is dramatic and haunting. Since it's typically such a sparse sound, however, his songs have succumbed to a little sameness from time to time. With eleven releases in as many years, it's safe to say that Ryan's never lacked for material or inspiration, but a little tweaking here and there might have been a good thing.
So it's refreshing to hear him shake things up with a group of longtime friends calling themselves the Silver State on Matthew Ryan vs. the Silver State. A far cry from the combativeness its title suggests, the album finds Ryan and the Silver State complementing each other time and time again. The band's straightforward sound -- with touches of strings here or there for a little added grace -- are just what Ryan needed. He sounds totally at home in these rock arrangements, which makes sense, since they obviously recall his days as a youngster getting turned on to U2, the Replacements, and the Clash.
Those influences and sturdy indie rock arrangements never overwhelm the Matthew Ryan vibe we've come to expect on MRVSS, but you can definitely tell where he's coming from. Leadoff track "Dulce Et Decorum Est" sounds for all the world like a Waterboys b-side, showing a subtle nod to Ryan's Irish-American working class roots. "American Dirt", "Killing the Ghost", and "It Could've Been Worse" pulse with vintage U2 bass lines, while "Hold on Firefly" and "Drunk and Disappointed" recall Paul Westerberg and company at their scruffy best.
The Replacements comparison seems especially apt, given Ryan's lyrical bent. Even before 2007's From a Late Night High Rise chronicled personal tragedies like his brother's 30-year prison sentence or a friend's death from cancer, Ryan was never one to dash off an empty lyric. While Westerberg often had his tongue firmly in cheek, his lineage at least stretches to Ryan via their shared ability to distill an experience into a few lines, as evidenced by "It Could've Been Worse":
Where you come from
You learn to disappear
To cover up your fear
With punk rock and stuff
When you were a kid
You listened to the Clash
You learned to never ask
Where your daddy was
Throughout MRVSS, it's almost as if Ryan is giving voice to the unnamed barflies in Westerberg's "Here Comes a Regular", the ones with troubled backstories that brought them where they are. These are often dark stories of disappointment, regret, and even domestic abuse. But there are also threads of hope, as there always are amongst Ryan's songs. The fact that so much of it glides along (thanks to guest spots by folks like Kate York and Thad Cockrell on "Dulce Et Decorum Est", "It Could've Been Worse", and "Closing In") is a testament to how well this particular team-up works.
The record's easy flow encourages labels like "nice", but that implies the record lacks any edge. One look at the lyric sheet will dispel that notion, though, as will Ryan's often intense delivery. The Silver State are usually right in tune with the song's demands, and that meeting of the minds makes for a record that's easy to listen to -- despite Ryan's bone-dry rasp -- and which gets better and more comfortable with each listen. It's not a record that sends out shock waves, but it just might open up interesting new paths for Matthew Ryan.