Written by: Dave Cantrell
As Stereo Embers begins the process of officially covering albums we missed reviewing during 2014, we thought it wise to start at the top of the list, where Boxers sits, representing as it does Ryan’s finest work yet. It’s the record that should bring the too-many that have missed it to discover this artist’s long, deep, and riveting catalog. Never too late to have yourself a new favorite songwriter.
Matthew Ryan has always asked that we imagine Springsteen without the need to ‘make a statement,’ or, inversely, to imagine Joe Henry fuel-injected by a dose of the Boss’s fury. Aside from reserving Ryan his place in the pantheon of classic American rock’n’roll songwriters, what we also find inside that stratum is a basic truth that commonly goes unrecognized: when gauntlets get thrown down, they break. Then what? Some version or another of that question proliferates on Boxers, and indeed in all the artist’s work. It’s the answers, of course, that generally prove to be rather thin on the ground.
Through a 17-year career Ryan has wandered far touring and recording but the operative crux of his songcraft seldom strays far from his Pittsburgh roots. There’s something of the blue collar, Rust Belt, Protestant-work-ethic-gone-astray in the people he sings for, like Willy Vlautin characters with a Deer Hunter heart. In essence, most often, he’s singing songs for the working man who’s not really thinking about work right now, there are too many outside complications and it’s hard to get a grip on what matters, it’s always so damn hard. As consolation, as prescription, as balm and bulwark, Ryan offers solace and judgeless empathy, offers defiance and the tender-to-the-touch honesty of his own bruised pride. All this has always been readily evident in the longing rasp of his voice, in the everyman classicism of his song structures that warmly invite the listener in despite the pain and stinging pathos that almost surely await. Add to those longstanding, innate capabilities the perspective of a now-seasoned artist left to reconcile his status as a master at his craft with the relative lack of renown that, regardless of it being an age-old conundrum more common than not, cannot help but weigh, and you may well expect the sort of defining piece of work that’s often wrung from such an existential dilemma. Doesn’t, as we know, always work out that way, but with Boxers Ryan’s accomplished exactly that, surpassingly so.
Hitting out at the start with the title track, the singer is clearly, if you’ll pardon my saying, in no mood for pulling punches. Thundering with the type sorrow that can only come from threatened dreams, surviving through sheer obstinate will over on the literate side of the anthemic divide, “Boxers” is exactly the track we expect and need from Matthew Ryan, one that gives vulnerability some righteous fire, gives it a fighting chance. The tone, decisively, is set. There will be no stinting, no shying away. What follows over a dozen more tracks redounds upon those themes and emotions already iterated; essentially – if we may extend the pugilist trope for a moment – despair and hope getting pushed into the ring together and finding themselves locked seemingly forever in a clinch, Ryan displaying, like an artist possessed, a passion for the genuine that afflicts only a rare echelon of American songwriters, in songs written and sung with a searing sincerity of heart.
Whether on the muscular, yeoman confessional of “Heaven’s Hill,” rife with moral dilemma and presented with a sorrowful swagger that could cause one to speculate upon Bob Seger banging out a midwesternized version of Crime and Punishment, the pitched ballad of “She Threw Me Like A Hand Grenade” (you might be lonely but you’re not alone), the philosophical roil of “The First Heartbreak” with its twinge of wounded Dylan – just listen to the pinched drawl of the I wanna go home lyric at 1:48 – or the sweet, acoustic-founded slowdown of “Suffer No More,” wherein by ‘sweet’ we mean an arresting, fatalistic swing through melancholia’s playground that leaves us, beautifully, out on the fringes with the light slowly going, the songs on Boxers span the damage and heartache sprawling across the once-fruited plains, the debris left in the wake of severe – and criminal – economic thunderstorms for which no one was punished except those in their path. And yet, even as promises that appeared as birthright lay lost behind boarded-up storefronts or under the frost of fallow fields, the characters here, lovers losers benighted hopefuls, the last thing they’d lay claim to is victimhood. The hurt is real and is bound to linger but that’s tacitly accepted, it’s part of the ride. You pays your money and you takes your chances.
Thing is, be it spoken in broad, pounding strokes as on the burning tribute (eulogy?) of “This One’s For You Frankie,” the goosebump-raising plea at (and from) the heart of rousing rocker “Oh Despair!” or via the brush-stroked, dead-of-night glow of the outcast prayer “We Are Libertines,” buoyed by a layer of strings subtle enough to stop time, the critical effect of these songs and on the the characters within is personal. In a tradition stretching at least as far back as Steinbeck and Dos Passos and threading through the literary peregrinations of Kerouac and echoing a string of predecessors that worked those cues themselves – Townes Van Zandt, Phil Ochs, Dylan, Robbie Robertson – the Matthew Ryan narrative sets store by the inborn power of implication. We’re all buffeted by forces well beyond our control, some just more than others. Those some are the folk we mostly find here, facing struggle and ruination and a lot of broken hearts while angling towards some chimerical version of redemption, knowing they likely won’t reach it, not even certain of what it exactly might be but fighting for it anyway. That they do it without an ounce of self-pity or the slightest sense of entitlement is what, from an observer’s standpoint, defines their pride. It’s the nature of their glory.
Now, while all this talk of the noble defeated must invariably re-invoke the mantle of Springsteen – and indeed the fiery “An Anthem For The Broken” perhaps trespasses an inch too far into that territory, though it still produces such a galvanizing roar that it trounces all comers. You will rock and believe and shake your fist – Ryan relies here not only on his instinctive gift for inhabiting, method actor-style, the tense nucleus of conflicted motives driving these people but as well the guy behind the glass to ensure such a comparison remains well at bay.
Of similar stripe and equal depth, Kevin Salem’s been somewhat of a parallel traveler (his landmark Soma City album should be sought by all) and though a culminative statement of an album would have resulted regardless – the torque and momentum Ryan brought to the project is palpable throughout – it’s a strong bet with good money that Boxer‘s ultimate result, its power and shaped fury, owes not a little to Salem’s empathic sensibilities. Boisterous and confident but unafraid to let the frays about the edges show, the sound on the album gives full breathing voice to every ache and pang, every urge and doubt, the mix an adroit blend of the supportive and the all-out declarative. As evidence, we offer what may be the archetype of ‘the Matthew Ryan song.’
Brazenly uptempo in the face of a classic down-stepping progression that, as they so often are, manages to be uplifting, “God’s Not Here Tonight” essays a narrative that hovers tetchily between a pissed-off sympathy and excoriating disappointment. Addressed to any and everyone he maybe once trusted but can no longer, himself possibly included, Ryan’s vocal seethes with a barely contained quaver of disbelieving rage, straining to stay calm. Clearly there’s been betrayal, there’s been – again – damage (I lost some teeth defending you), points of no return have been crossed with reckless abandon. Meanwhile, the utter righteousness of rhythm, the tom getting hit like it’s busy being shot, the dual constancy of guitar keeping impatient time on either side of the mix while a third, like some shadow of conscience, floats with sustained feedback overhead, combine to create a setting that meshes pulp noir with break-up balladry with rock’n’roll indictment that’s simultaneously intense and desperate. It is, really, why we listen to the form in the first place, to feel our emotions getting charged as if by repeated waves of lightning and is it any wonder that UNCUT chose Ryan as one of the artists to cover the Clash on a tribute comp back in 2003 (“Somebody Got Murdered”).
Over the course of this review we’ve heard the word ‘heart’ a lot, heard the word ‘hurt,’ but perhaps the word that should ring with the most prominence as regards Boxers is ‘courage,’ not only as it applies to the subjects of these songs as they sort through quandary after conflict after compromised reward, but to Matthew Ryan as well. This album, as you no doubt noticed, is self-released, his first after years of wandering through labels large and small, from Polydor and A&M to One Little Indian and Hybrid Recordings. And while it might be expected that under such circumstances an artist would be forced to scale back, Ryan’s chosen a different tack, bringing in a crack team of musicians that includes guitarist Brian Fallon from Gaslight Anthem, former Black Crowes drummer Joe Magistro, and no less than Tracy Bonham lending violin to a couple of tracks (“She Threw Me Like A Hand Grenade” and “The Queen of My Arms”), not to mention Salem himself and the multiple levels of prowess he brings, and throwing the whole shindig in, as he says, “a proper studio.” A gutsy move, no doubt, but one that should by all rights pay off since the record itself is, well, such a payoff. Artists everywhere are negotiating new paths to commercial viability, one has to believe that those producing work this significant under the shadow of personal risk will reap their own, uncompromised, reward. Prove that belief right, and treat yourself to one of Stereo Embers’ albums of the year at the same time. Order the album digitally here or go wild and get an actual physical copy straight from Ryan’s website here. Meanwhile, the title track: