Releasing a new album called Dear Lover right around Valentine's Day (physically, at least — the digital release came three months back) would seem like a pretty cut-and-dried move. Except for the fact that it happens to be Matthew Ryan's new album, which means emotional complexity and poetic existential wrestling edge out breezy, sentimental hooks.
Says Ryan — a longtime rock-leaning, singing, songwriting fixture in Nashville — rather cryptically, "In many ways Dear Lover is a really honest record about love — and I know how dangerous that can be."
With a little prompting, he explains further: "Love songs get a bad rap. We all love them. They tend to be kind of one-dimensional. But this really is a three-dimensional rumination on love. And not just love with a woman, but also the things that we love versus maybe the things that we don't really need."
In the liner notes, Ryan reveals where he was when he started writing for the album: the emergency room. (He doesn't say exactly what the emergency was, and it's really beside the point.) It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that songs like "We Are Snowmen" have a quiet desperation to them, the sense of feelings jarred awake by crisis and of a lot — life, lifeblood, relationships — hanging in the balance. Which seems nowhere near as straightforward as scripted displays of affection you might see on Valentine's Day from people feeling the pressure but not the feeling.
Besides being downright prolific — this is his eleventh release since his 1997 major-label debut May Day, counting one with the ambient indie band he co-fronts with Nielson Hubbard, Strays Don't Sleep — Ryan is the sort of guy who offers thorough philosophical reasons for his artistic decisions. Though he has plenty of tried-and-true collaborators around town, he opted to make Dear Lover pretty much on his own in his home studio, the Lerkim.
So what was the point in flying solo? Ryan paraphrases a Joe Strummer quote: " 'As long as you have others to blame for things that go wrong, you'll never learn anything.' "
"The reason that's important in my own story, in my own ambition, in my own life," Ryan says, "is that I really have believed that inside of each of us is really the entire story we need to know, as far as what it means to be men and women. And so it kind of makes sense, then, that I would turn completely inward to try and connect with what's outside. I don't mean to get all, you know, Eckhart Tolle about it. ... If that's been my philosophy that the further in, the more personal you get, the more universal you get, then [recording alone] makes sense. It really wasn't fair, if that was my intent, to keep dragging people down that path with me."
Because Ryan does the lion's share of the playing, the album's sonic palette revolves around textures like computerized beats, guitar fuzz, synth hum, minimalistic keyboard melodies and acoustic finger-picking, without any rhythm section driving things. "It was very utilitarian," he says. "I'm not the best musician in the world. I get so frustrated. I've been playing guitar for — I don't know — 20 years now, and I still can't play in time."
And, of course, there's also the most striking musical element: his singing — raspy and breathy, like a murmured brush against the ear. It sounds as close as ever. "Honestly, I think a big part of that comes from what my experience was with records early on," he says. "I always loved the songs where I felt like something was really being communicated to me. I remember the first time I heard 'Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye' by Leonard Cohen. ... There's something about a song that is confiding in you something you already know. I think that that's become a big part of what my goal is. We're nothing without intimacy."
How people interpret Ryan's voice is something else he's had occasion to ponder: "I think that when people hear a voice like mine, they often just assume there's cynicism involved, and cynicism is the last thing on my mind or where I'm coming from."
Ryan chuckles a little at the truth of the matter: "I actually love singing. ... It doesn't hurt to sing."
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