Yes, gentle readers, we treated you to an interview with Matthew Ryan on Monday, and today — which just happens to be the day his new album comes out — we’re giving him the full-on Popdose Guide treatment. That’s what the dudes in suits call “synergy,” except it doesn’t usually sound this good.
Like a lot of our Popdose Guides artists, Matthew Ryan has never sold a lot of records, but he’s enjoyed consistently positive reviews throughout his career; his debut inspired critics to use magic words like “Springsteen” and “Waits” in their writeups, and they’ve continued using them ever since.
Such comparisons are rarely helpful to an artist’s career — just ask the dozens of New Dylans who have been without record deals since the mid-’70s — but in Ryan’s case, it’s easy to hear why they’ve been made so often: His bruised-but-beautiful protagonists seek redemption as fervently as any of Springsteen’s working class heroes, and they’re brought to life with hard-fought vocals that suggest a raspier, more tuneful Waits.
Intrigued yet? Good. You’re in for an extra treat this week — we’ve been lucky enough to get a few words about each of these albums from Matthew Ryan himself.
Let’s get started.
“Well, I can’t believe it’s been 11 years since I made this. To me, it sounds young. But I’m proud that my intent was true and I didn’t compromise, since I didn’t know how to make records. Fortunately, David Ricketts (one half of David & David, a really great band from the ’80s) produced it, and knew how to make records. I wanted to make music as raw as the Replacments, Crazy Horse and the Clash, but I wanted it to be as elegant as the Blue Nile & U2. Even then I felt there was strength found in conspiring with the darker self.
“It was on this record, actually during the promotion of the record, that I realized honesty is dangerous. Often when people hear something honest they don’t want to hear themselves in it. I’ve always suspected that those that hated this record, or even still hate my music, probably need it the most. I don’t say that for the sake of ego, but because of what I’m talking about, what I’m trying to communicate. This was a good and a bad time. My soul knew who I was, but my head was too sensitive.”
Had May Day reached shelves a decade earlier, the A&M logo on the back would have made a lot more sense; as it was, however, the album ended up representing the last few moments of “real music” at the label Herb & Jerry built. It also represented a tax writeoff at the end of the year, because nobody bought it.
This wasn’t A&M’s fault, really — rock radio sure as hell wasn’t playing blue-collar tunes like “Chrome” (download) and “Disappointed” (download) anymore, and netroots marketing didn’t even exist yet; it’s hard to imagine anyone at the label honestly believing they could turn this album into a hit.
It’s easy, however, to imagine someone hearing these songs and believing they represented the first steps of an artist people needed to hear. There’s a lot of darkness in here — and Ryan’s world-weariness is sort of shocking for someone when you consider that he was only 25 when May Day came out — but there’s also a lot of hope, which is really what moves these songs, and defines Ryan’s work as a whole. Springsteen/Waits comparisons notwithstanding, I’ve always thought of Matthew Ryan as sort of a rock & roll Dylan Thomas; he can be bitter, and he’s frequently deeper in his cups than he should be, but he never, never stops raging against the dying of the light.
“This was MY first record. I dove headlong into the darkness here, and to me, once I broke the surface, I found beauty and impossible colors. This is cinema in the most innocent fashion. I didn’t know how to make records, I probably still don’t. But I’ve always felt that once a listener broke the surface of this music, they’d understand everything that destroys what we love. And to understand that is to build a city so close to happiness. My voice is often rough here — I was struggling to live up to my ideas. It’s all about the words to me. Out of self-consciousness about my voice, I started that newscaster delivery. It’s a shame, ’cause these songs beg for a great actor.”
After May Day failed to make much of an impression, and three years passed without another peep out of Ryan, it came as something of a surprise to see him still on the A&M roster for East Autumn Grin. It’s essentially a beefed-up version of his debut, featuring bigger, slightly shinier production from David Ricketts (who also helmed May Day) and cameos from Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano and Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner (who plays trumpet on “Ballad of a Limping Man” [download]).
At heart, though, the music’s still the same — and if anything, it was even less marketable in 2000 than it had been in ’97. Songs like “Sadlylove” (download) are meant to be absorbed, not heard passively, and would have sounded awfully silly sandwiched between hits by Creed or Limp Bizkit. Of course, this made Ryan a liability when A&M was smushed into Interscope, a label always more focused on the bottom line than artist development.
In a different era, losing his deal might have put a dent in Matthew Ryan’s recording career — but this is the 21st century, and digital distribution has made it easier for niche artists and smaller labels to reach their audiences. Freed from A&M, Ryan rolled up his sleeves and got to work.
“To sum up ‘Concussion’ in one word: symbolism. This is my first independent record. I wasn’t thinking about my career when I made it.
“Its release nearly sunk me. I’ve had people tell me that I was done when they heard this, because cynicism had apparently swallowed me whole. But I never saw it this way. Nothing on this record is literal. Love and pain, hope and fear… these are all metaphors by the bigger things that inspire, daunt and dog us. The information age was about to explode, it was blooming. Virtual experience and whoever you wanna be, false empowerment and invisible community. I knew that the lives written about here were gonna be crushed under by the all new media. I wanted to write about them. These people aren’t losers. They’re just forgotten like the day between centuries. They’re still alive today, they might even be us. But the blizzard of marketing, content, information, news and nonesense have us disassociated from them.
“This isn’t all doom and gloom. We’ll retreat from the fake world. I just hope we don’t go too far. That’s why the last song on ‘Concussion’ is what it is. ‘Shake the Tree’ is a song about intimacy, contact. It’s leaning towards the loyal and physical.”
When an album has a title like Concussion, it’s hard not to expect a little violence in its sound — you want it to come barreling out of the speakers, looking for a fight. Go in looking for a balls-out rock record, and Ryan’s third release will disappoint you; Concussion represents the first step in what has become a career-long effort to strip his songs down to their most essential bits.
Recorded and mixed in just over a week, this is a stark, spare collection — to take the Springsteen comparisons just a little further, it’s Matthew Ryan’s Nebraska, at least insofar as it’s his quietest, most bare-bones record. The tempo picks up for his cover of the Clash’s “Somebody Got Murdered” (download), but most of the songs sound more like “Rabbit” (download) — secrets whispered between friends.
Those whispers weren’t heard by enough people to continue Ryan’s association with WaxySilver Records, but his label-less status didn’t keep new music from reaching the fans — in 2002, he released a pair of homemade albums through his website. Hopeless to Hopeful and Dissent from the Living room are no longer available (or easily found), so they’re both being included in their entirety below.
Hopeless to Hopeful is the less polished of the two, but neither of them are what you’d call glossy — or even “produced,” really. He was saving that for his next “official” release.
Hopeless to Hopeful (2002)
“The repercussions of ‘Concussion’ in full effect. After releasing that album, I couldn’t get arrested by labels. Iâ€™m not joking. My publishing company dropped me. And the economy of how I could live and what I could accomplish felt very tight. I took a job in a warehouse and started cashing those weekly checks. I was looking for a beauty in a more dependable day to day, but I couldn’t find it. I started recording on my four-track and soon had about 30 songs recorded. My bosses at the warehouse were very forgiving because the more I started writing and recording, the later I would be to work. And to their credit, they never held it over my head. In fact, I’ve heard that they still follow my career and hang up press clippings in the warehouse. That’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Rain, Rain, Rain” (download)
“Song for Sons” (download)
“Veterans Day” (download)
“I’m An American” (download)
“Everybody Always Leaves” (download)
“I Can’t Steal You” (download)
“This Side of Heaven” (download)
“Postcard to Useless” (download)
“Little Drummer Boy” (download)
“From the Floor” (download)
Dissent from the Living Room (2002)
“So, I released ‘Hopeless to Hopeful,’ and ‘Dissent from the Living Room.’ These were DIY at their most caveman. Eventually One Little Indian Records in The UK reached out to me — they re-released ‘Concussion’ in the UK and collected a handful of songs from the DIY releases to make a collection called ‘Happiness.’ It was all very beautiful. When I look back upon this time, as scary as it was, it made me realize that I was an artist. And despite what the road ahead looked like, I was always going to create. It’s like sleep or language to me. It’s my work.
“The listeners that reached out to me then, they proved what I was afraid to understand. You see, when I grew up, it was BIG MUSIC, big audiences, and big ideas. I thought if I didn’t acheive that, well, I thought that I’d failed. But the people that reached out to me at that point, they showed me that a whisper can change the world as profoundly as a bomb.
“I don’t mean that as arrogantly as it may sound or read.”
“The Little Things” (download)
“Such a Sad Satellite” (download)
“After the Last Day of a Heat Wave” (download)
“Demoland Part 1” (download)
“Emergency Room Machines Say Breathe” (download)
“No Going Back” (download)
“The Ballad of So & So” (download)
“Happy for You” (download)
“Into the Sourdays” (download)
“Demoland Part 2” (download)
“Elise Is the 13th Disciple” (download)
“My first properly recorded album since ‘Concussion.’ By now, it’s 2003, and many of my friends that are artists have gone on to larger audiences and opportunities. It bothered me. My road was so winding and rocky.
“‘Regret Over The Wires’ was recorded in a converted home in East Nashville. Some of my best friends helped me make it. This was also the first time I used home recordings that I’d started at my house on a large release. The technology was getting to the point where I couldn’t hear the difference. ‘Return to Me,’ the first track on ‘Regret,’ was written and recorded at home for the most part. It’s always songs that excite me. Great movies and music turn us into giants. ‘Return to Me’ was the first time, in a long time, that I felt like a giant. Not in terms of power, or anything meaningless, but in that way that we can rise above our struggles because inspiration exposes beauty.
“‘Regret’ was a call to arms in some ways for me. I wanted to connect people to their roles in the greater stories we live with. Love and politics. As citizens, I think we can feel like small wooden boats on the ocean. I think it’s important that we realize that we are the ocean.”
After three albums of barely-produced music, Ryan decided to gussy things up a bit for the Hybrid-distributed Regret Over the Wires, packing a few pounds of muscle onto the rock numbers and adding a slight electronic sheen to some of the slower songs, like the gorgeous opening track, “Return to Me” (download). It’s a wiser, more self-assured collection, and has the added benefit of being slightly more commercial — a handful of these tracks could have (and should have) found purchase on AAA playlists.
But no. For whatever reason, Regret failed to give Ryan’s commercial profile the shot in the arm it should have. Call your local grown-up radio station and give ’em hell for not helping make “Return to Me” — not to mention songs like “Caged Bird” (download) — into well-deserved hits.
At this point, Ryan had released four albums’ worth of material in three years. It would take some time for him to give his audience new music — and when he did, it would come under a decidedly different guise.
“Again, I’ve got to be honest — my road is windy and rocky because I make it that way. Between ‘Regret Over the Wires’ and ‘From a Late Night High Rise,’ I released a side project called Strays Don’t Sleep. It was an effort, or more to the point, a vacation from myself. Neilson Hubard and I made the record.
“I wrote the song ‘For Blue Skies’ for my brother, who had been arrested and was facing 30 years in prison. He was later sentenced to the full extent of the law. I offered ‘For Blue Skies’ as part of the record we were recording for Strays Don’t Sleep. The song, as it turns out, has had the biggest life in the new world (the viral world of YouTube and MySpace). It’s a sprawling, simple and epic song. It’s beautiful and expresses the sublime in darkness — as in, forgiveness.
“It’s funny to me that the song lives so beautifully and so few know I wrote it. Strays Don’t Sleep has since disbanded, and it looks like it was a one-off situation. But that song was the beginning for the songs that became ‘From A Late Night High Rise.'”
In 2004, Ryan reached out to Neilson Hubbard (formerly one half of This Living Hand) to discuss a potential collaboration. The duo bonded over a shared love of the Blue Nile (great taste in music, those two) and formed Strays Don’t Sleep with Brian Bequette, Billy Mercer, and Steve Latanation.
Sonically, Strays Don’t Sleep isn’t hugely different from Ryan’s other albums, particularly the later ones — but the songs, particularly the delicately beautiful “For Blue Skies” (download) and “Spirit Fingers” (download), are heartbreaking in their vulnerability.
Strays Don’t Sleep earned a slew of positive reviews — particularly in Europe, where it was released first — and though the band was short-lived, it had a profound effect on the way Ryan would make music in the future.
“‘From a Late Night High Rise’ is essentially a collection of tone poems. Neilson was kind enough to help me make this record. A very dear person in my life died of cancer right around the time my brother was sentenced. It all got me thinking about love, family, loneliness, ambition, the big questions, trust and faith.
“I believe the cold sound of ‘High Rise’ feels like where I was. I wanted it to sound like real sorrow. When you go through things like this, you often go through a period of numb relations with the world. Everything feels fucked, or doomed. But once you get to the other side, you’re alive in an almost nuclear fashion. And it was me getting on the other side that lead to the making of ‘Matthew Ryan vs. the Silver State,’ but ‘High Rise’ is about all the thoughts that haunt you when you lose someone and you realize that there will never be enough time. We gotta seize the day. It’s a cliche, but so what, it’s true.”
Strays Don’t Sleep may have been officially dissolved, but for his next release, From a Late Night High Rise, Ryan retained the services of Neilson Hubbard (who produced and handled a wide variety of instruments) and Steve Latanation (who played drums). Here’s what I wrote when the album was released:
Equal parts harrowing and beautiful, From a Late Night High Rise represents the ragged, tearstained culmination of Ryan’s career to this point. It’s the kind of record that requires of the listener some actual time and attention, but rewards those investments richly; once you’ve spent a few hours with this album, prepare to keep going back for more.
Ryan’s wounded rasp might be more of a blunt instrument than a “real” singing voice, but it’s perfect for his stories of mistakes made and lives shattered. The album opens with the lines “It’s follow the leader, baby / That’s how it’s gonna be / If you really wanna get lost, then follow me,” and that sets the tone for what’s to follow. These are spare, haunting songs, in which Ryan’s shaky whisper floats, ghostlike, over spare arrangements — a melancholy piano here, a lonesome guitar there — and redemption is always tantalizingly, heartbreakingly out of reach.
Few albums in recent memory have been as perfectly, poetically titled as From a Late Night High Rise. It emits the warmth of faith, hope and love against the vast, chilling uncertainty of endless night. The light is unsteady — at times, it’s little more than the neon glow from an upper-story window; at others, the comforting pulse of a rooftop beacon — but Ryan never lets us lose sight of it.
“Like i just said, you gotta seize your moment, make your own luck, draw your own lines.
“‘MRVSS’ is a gang of thoughts and hopes and struggles in a room kicking and screaming. This is my rock & roll — intelligent, hopeful, despaired and fighting for better or for worse for a better present. The present is always moving, and that means we always have a chance to claim or shape it. I’m finally at peace with the characters I write about. I finally understand them. And clearly, I’m a rather large part in the movie I’m writing.
“When I was writing ‘May Day,’ I was writing on instinct, and singing out of fear. My career started when boy bands were taking over the world. My timing was suspect. But I’m still here. Now I’m writing from experience and singing out of hope. I guess you can say I started as a cynic and moved towards innocence. Idealism is nothing to be ashamed of. The worst thing any of us can do is to lay down and quit on the things that make us tick. “
I hate to cop out twice, but once again, I don’t know how to add anything to what I’ve already written — so here’s a portion of what I wrote about Matthew Ryan’s newest album, out today, for Bullz-Eye.com:
Even for a guy whose music has always been hard-fought and raw, High Rise was a particularly harrowing achievement — a marathon run of an album whose closing notes left you feeling simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated.
Having dug (hopefully) as deep as he could go, Ryan now begins the long process of digging himself out — and to that end, his 11th release, Matthew Ryan vs. the Silver State, is more hopeful and outward-looking than its predecessor. This doesnâ€™t mean it’s a happy album, necessarily, but it does raise the rock quotient noticeably. This change in direction, spelled out in the album’s title, is due in large part to the full-time involvement of Ryan’s band, the Silver State (which includes Strays Don’t Sleep members Bequette, Lancio, and Latanation); even if the songs are cut from the same cloth as his earlier work, the heightened level of interplay brings out new colors in the material.
As a wise man once said, there’s a difference between cleaning up a pigpen and wallowing in shit — but it’s a finer line than you might think, and better men than Matthew Ryan have tripped on it. He doesn’t trip here. By the second first of the first song, “Dulce Et Decorum Est” (download), he’s telling the listener, “Well, you know / I think / I am / Heroic in a failing way,” and thatâ€™s as apt a summation as any for the dichotomy that powers these 11 songs. Ryan’s protagonists get knocked around, but no matter how far they bend, they never break, and they never stop searching for meaning. He lands his punches with a closed fist — the chorus of “They Were Wrong” repeats the title five times, then adds “My God, they’re still wrong” — while offering a hand to hold.
In Silver State‘s press kit, Ryan says these songs are about himself and his friends — where they’ve been, but not where they’re going, because, as he puts it, “I want everyone to win.” Everyone can’t win, of course, but that doesn’t rob the sentiment — or this album — of its beauty. For all the constant chatter about music’s increasing disposability, Matthew Ryan stands as proof that there are still artists who are down in the trenches for the long haul. If you’ve ever believed in the power of rock & roll’s saving grace, or been moved by three chords and a 4/4 beat, you owe yourself the acquaintance of this music.