Matthew Ryan's sophomore LP mixes ambitious music, lyrics to potent effect
By Michael McCall
SEPTEMBER 11, 2000: At bottom, Matthew Ryan's second album, East Autumn Grin, is about self-definition. Released last month on A&M Records, the LP finds the Nashville-based musician striving to figure out how to love and to live without compromising his individuality. But rather than resulting in homilies or joyous discovery, East Autumn Grin suggests that such a journey can be as confusing and harrowing as it is enlightening.
"I don't want to lose myself / And I don't want to lose you," Ryan sings in the album-opening "3rd of October." The drama in his voice conveys the perilous complexities of maintaining both a relationship and a sense of oneself. By song's end, when he repeatedly shouts, "I can't hold you now," it's unclear whether he's losing control of himself or his relationship, but it is dreadfully clear that neither one will be easy to reckon with.
The song is the perfect setup for East Autumn Grin, an earnest and audacious attempt to create an epic American rock album on the scale of U2, Radiohead, and The Verve. Lyrically, Ryan comes off as a passionate idealist trying to confront the intricacies of love and the contradictions of a society fixated at once on consumerism and spiritualism. Musically, he wraps his powerful lyrics in densely layered, emotionally resonant modern rock that comes off as a modern American update of anthemic British rock.
On his latest album, Ryan says, "I feel like I've connected the music to the language better," crediting the assistance of coproducer Trina Shoemaker, best known for her work with Sheryl Crow. In explaining his musical shift, he cites such defunct English rock bands as House of Love, Kitchens of Distinction, and the Blue Nile. He also references the work of Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits as well as U2's "With or Without You" and Peter Gabriel's Us album as particularly potent marriages of lyrics and music.
"When you get the relationship right between the two, it can be amazingly powerful," he says. "To be honest about it, that's what I wanted to do."
He also wanted clarify his musical identity. Three years ago, when Ryan released his A&M debut Mayday, the reactions elated and befuddled him. The album drew reams of praise from rock critics, but Ryan often got described as a roots-rocker, which he's not. "For some reason, people's perception was that I'm a traditionalist," he says. "I'm not, so that frustrated me. I don't understand the traditions that someone like Robbie Fulks understands. I'm familiar with them, but I don't understand them. It became important for me to get a handle on what I do understand, and to elaborate on that."
So Ryan went on a mission to identify his musical influences, then figure out how to blend and transcend them. This period of musical self-discovery coincided with a more personal journey to figure out who he was and what he wanted in life. "I have this feeling of being starved, yet I live in the wealthiest society that's ever existed," explains Ryan, who grew up in working-class neighborhoods in Pennsylvania and Maryland. "I want to know why that is. A lot of what I've got I would've never imagined having because of where I came from. I live in a safe neighborhood. I have a nice house. I have a beautiful woman who loves me. I've got a lot that I never imagined having, but I don't think I've ever been more unhappy."
The theme of the album, he says, is "the relationship between culture and commercialism and between love and sex and the whole damn minefield. They're combative relationships, and what I'm saying is we have to do what's right. That's not a political speech, and it's certainly not a conservative speech. It's about treating people in a way that allows them to have dignity."
The theme arises throughout Ryan's songs. "Me and My Lover" contains the album's most explicitly tender message, yet even it conveys the anxiety that comes with commitment. In the end, the song says a relationship can provide shelter from life's frustrations and empty vanities, but even here, Ryan sounds full of doubt. "I guess I've grown weary," he sings, "and yes I've concluded that nothing is sacred as long as you're bored."
The album's hardest-hitting songs take a broader look at the world. "I Hear a Symphony" lists a series of media-driven and real-life vignettes, all of which suggest the maddening yet beautiful wholeness of life. Ryan says he hears a symphony "In the sparkle of a young girl's eyes / In the exclusive footage of suicide" as well as "Late at night when the shots are like bells / When disillusion is a fragrance that sells." Amid a moody yet uplifting arrangement, he breaks through in the chorus, stating with unadulterated optimism, "You are not alone / I swear this burden is not your own." In the context of the album, it's as heroic a statement as rock 'n' roll can make.
"The World Is on Fire," on the other hand, is much darker in tone. It starts with an indictment of the media and our nation's insatiable hunger to glimpse the most horrific moments of a stranger's life. In characteristically poetic lines of verse, Ryan condemns those who tell and listen to stories of murderous newlyweds and of high school girls birthing stillborn babies in bathrooms. He speaks of faith being weak and of the world being on fire, then delves into how Americans tend to view their political system and their relationships with superficial sentimentality.
To a slow but tense and noisy arrangement, as a chorus repeats "America" in the background, Ryan seethes in a deliberate and dark whisper, "Oh America, you're beautiful / Yeah, you're beautiful when you're sleeping/ Lovers, you are loved / You are loved when you're grieving."
While he sees the world as burning around him, Ryan nonetheless wants to point to the splendor as well as the flames. "The World Is on Fire" suggests that life remains precious, despite everything. "I'm trying, and I'm trying still," he sings, in a way that makes you want to join him in the effort. In this sense, East Autumn Grin achieves something rare for a modern rock album: It encourages the listener to look at the world more clearly, and it suggests that, as bleak as things sometimes seem, there is always hope.
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