Unlike in literature, fresh starts rarely come with fanfare in life. Characters suffer and grow in fiction while we measure their catharses page by page. Reality's long slog has a way of flattening out the changes and arcs in our lives.
That's why listening to Matthew Ryan, both in song and in person, provides unique perspective on a man charting his life changes with poetic integrity.
Having just released his 11th record, Matthew Ryan vs. The Silver State, Ryan has been struggling under the radar since his great debut, Mayday, back in 1997. If you're a junkie for gritty, romantic, guitar-edged songs sung by bruised, emotionally-wracked voices, then you should add this guy to your list of contenders.
Often compared to the hallowed vein of artists like Springsteen, Waits, and Westerberg (with good reason), Ryan has grown into his own style through hardship and discipline. Ever since picking up Mayday 10 years ago, I've followed Ryan's ups and downs on disc. I loved his first few records, finding his music to be anthemic in the best ways — not your typical, bland singer/songwriter fare.
But then I lost track of Ryan, maybe because much of his later music sounded overly subdued, fraught with moody synthesizers and grim fatalism.
His records like Regret Over the Wires in 2003 and From a Late Night High Rise in 2006 seemingly disappeared upon release into a void of despair and resignation. I could hear the trauma in his music, sometimes undefined, but still there in the margins.
That's why it's so good hearing his new one, Silver State, which is his first real collaboration with a band (the band is named after the title, because it feels like a distinct change in his music).
In a recent interview with Ryan from his home in Nashville, he says, "I came up with a bunch of titles for the record, but they didn't quite nail where I was at, my own ambition and my own life, you know? This is a band record, so it has kind of a conflicted group thing about it. But I thought there was a beauty about it too. You know the Silver State is Nevada, which has a strange kind of emotional resonance."
Throughout the interview, Ryan pauses between thoughts and even interrupts himself as he tries to mine his feelings about a subject. Like his music, he's sincere and disarming in his honesty. Unlike many, he doesn't answer questions by rote, but struggles to get at their essence. In other words, he's a good guy to talk to.
He admits, "I get uncomfortable sometimes speaking, because I've said it a million times and I don't want it to sound like sloganeering. The bottom line is I've come to a point in my life and my career where I can't tell if I'm being brave or stupid. And I don't want to fail — this record speaks to that. I wanted to draw a line in the sand between the future and the past. 'Vs.' made more sense to me than 'and' in the title, because I'd like to win that big gamble, a.k.a. the Silver State."
Ryan refers to his personal troubles in the recent past, from his older brother's 30-year prison sentence to a good friend dying of cancer. Obviously, there are reasons his last few records were so downbeat.
He explains, "High Rise was essentially a concept record about my brother and I don't think I communicated that idea well. A lot of that stuff started in the '80s, and I thought if it was going to tell that story then it should have that sound. But I did want to make a sweatier, more human record this time. Hopefully this one sounds more engaged."
Much of Ryan's music is soaked in the autobiography of his youth, growing up on the industrial streets of Chester, Penn., and his early passion for the music of The Clash, Replacements and Springsteen. You can hear these echoes in his music, from the clarion call of thick, distorted guitar to his husky, shredded voice. But his songwriting is all his own.
He generously reels out line after line of bejeweled imagery. Check out, "And in pulling off her scarf/I let go/It floated like a wounded bird/Her mouth the shape of Spanish words," from the opening track, "Dulce et Decorum Est". His songs ache with regret but hint at something brighter just ahead, if they can only turn the corner.
After the relatively minor success of his first few records, Ryan lost career momentum and left A&M Records. He has since floated between indie labels
"Ever since Mayday, I got really disenchanted with the whole music biz," he explains, "so there was a lot of self-defense going on. I just realized this is no way to live."
Ryan even considered leaving his music career behind for a period, but his fans' support gave him a new perspective. He says, "I worked in a warehouse for a while and started to study to be a teacher. I just wanted to find something more secure, you know. But I maintained my Web site and was really shocked by the amount of people who were really seeking me out."
Like his musical role models, Ryan focuses on the heroism involved in everyday lives. His whispered confessionals resonate with mundane and dramatic details that form populist pictures of people like you and me.
To sum up, he declares, "I don't really do this for ego and I clearly don't make financial decisions based on what my record will be, but I do it from the naïve notion that music is the ultimate connector."
MATTHEW RYAN VS. THE SILVER STATE plays Thursday at the Southgate House. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.