CD Review of Matthew Ryan vs. the Silver State by Matthew Ryan
Recommended if you like
Steve Earle, the Replacements,
Bruce Springsteen
Matthew Ryan:
Matthew Ryan vs.
the Silver State

Reviewed by Jeff Giles


hen last we left Matthew Ryan, he was coping with his brother’s 30-year prison sentence – and the death of a friend – through 2006’s From a Late Night High Rise, a bloody-knuckled collection of quietly insistent songs that combined Leonard Cohen’s eloquence with Springsteen’s thirst for redemption and Dylan Thomas’ rage against the dying of the light. 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 doesn’t mean it’s a happy album, necessarily – like Westerberg or Springsteen, Ryan’s got a voice built for heavy lifting, the kind of thorny rasp that could take even the corniest of ballads (hell, probably even “You Light Up My Life”) and give it extra meaning – 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; 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. It’s vaguely akin to the difference between Springsteen solo and with the E Street Band – only where the Boss uses his bandmates to thicken and amplify the beat of his rock & roll heart, Ryan uses the Silver State to disassemble his sound and remove all the superfluous bits.

What it lacks in moving parts, Silver State more than makes up in power. The rock landscape is littered with musicians who have exhausted themselves (or their audiences) with the struggle for salvation, and we’re always hungry for more – an appetite satirized by the title of Todd Rundgren’s 1983 album, The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect. What sets Matthew Ryan apart from a lot of his peers, however, is his music’s continual evolution; he seems to understand, on some level, that all that struggling is bound to be for naught unless you actually learn from it once in a while. As a wise man once said, there’s a difference between cleaning up a pigpen and wallowing in shit – but there’s a finer line between the two 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,” he’s telling the listener, “Well, you know / I think / I am / Heroic in a failing way,” and that’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 it to yourself to seek out this album.

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