I’ve known Matthew Ryan for about a decade now. I was introduced to him via my wife, who knew I was looking for music for my film YOU ARE ALONE. She discovered him when watching TV one night, ONE TREE HILL to be specific, and a Ryan song came on. She knew me well enough to know how I’d react to that sandpaper and honey voice.
I bought every record, and yes, eventually used Matt’s songs in not only YOU ARE ALONE, but also in FRIENDS (WITH BENEFITS) and in my latest film BROKEN SIDE OF TIME (for which he wrote the theme song). But my discovery of his music came mid-career. The infectious rockers of earlier albums like MAYDAY had been replaced with haunting introspection. The songs were depressed and lonely, perfect for the films I was making. And albums like FROM A LATE NIGHT HIGH RISE felt like a glass of good Scotch going down. His music was a drinking buddy. It was a Matt Ryan song Sinatra was really talking about when he sang “It’s a quarter to three…”
Then earlier this year Matt sent me an early mix of his new album BOXERS. The songs were like nothing I had heard from him before. Anthems, rollicking and rambunctious. Songs that would not leave your head for days. It was as if an invisible beast had sudden been awoken. And the man who could so easily break your heart with one piercing line, could now rock your very soul.
But I didn’t want to talk about the album then. Why, if no one could buy it. So I kept it on the back burner for many months. Hell, I even directed a music video for the title track.
And then I received the final mastered version of the album a few weeks back, and the record that had secretly been on my list of the best albums of 2014 was even better. The tracks has been re-sequenced, and somehow that made them all the more powerful. Like chapters in a book, telling a tale of greater scope and vision.
And what exactly is that story? It’s Matt Ryan saying “I’m still here. And I’m not giving up.” The title track “Boxers” makes that abundantly clear. A soaring rocker about having your back against ropes. “How do you say goodbye/To a dream that just won’t die,” he sings, adding later, “All our heroes had no choice/Some busted chords and a broken voice.” And those heroes make their presence felt in every corner of the album’s eleven track boxing ring. Matt’s well documented love of The Replacements and The Clash especially can be heard in songs like “Suffer No More,” which would have been one of the best songs on “All Shook Down” had Westerberg in fact penned it, or the brilliant “An Anthem for the Broken” which had to be written with the ghost of Joe Strummer watching over Matt’s shoulders. These are the sort of songs that a lesser musician would build an album around. But the problem here, if you can call it that, it that there’s too much greatest to go around.
“Then She Threw Me Like a Hand Grenade” with its chorus of “You might feel lonely but you’re not alone” is presented twice on the record. And though it harkens back to the Matt Ryan songs I first fell in love with, there’s hope in this world view. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Until you arrive at the demo version of the song which is included as one of two bonus tracks. There, Matt’s voice, bruised and vulnerable, drives us to despair. I actually don’t know which version of the song I like best. They are different animals. One runs free through open fields no longer being preyed upon. The other hides in darkness waiting to fight back. Both are beautiful.
But the masterpiece on “Boxers” is “God’s Not Here Tonight.” This to me is the song Matt Ryan was born to write. It’s the anthem for life in American in 2014, a commentary on those in power, those who feed us the news. On one hand its title is the headline the New York Times secretly screams every day, and on the other its refrain of “I don’t care what you wanted/I don’t care if you’re scared” is the mantra of seemingly every elected official. It’s a song that hooks itself into your psyche, his “Bastards of Young.” It’s a song that ranks as one of the best recorded by anyone this year.
With guitars blaring, this record sounds alive, as if Matt Ryan himself is the boxer up against the ropes. He’s not ready to give up on that dream. In fact he just landed an upper cut to the jaw to pretty much every other rock band around. “Boxers” is that sort of a knockout.