Rated | Alphabetical
| Highest Rated 2006
Matthew Ryan: From A Late Night High Rise
Kevin Forest Moreau
Matthew Ryan has proven that his grainy tenor is adaptable to a variety
of backdrops, from the roots-inflected rock of his gripping debut May Day
to the arena-filling ambitions of the undervalued East Autumn Grin to
the default pensive-singer-songwriter mode that informs all of his releases
to some degree (most notably the sparse Concussion). Like, say,
Lucinda Williams, he mines impressive nuance and meaning from his restricted
range. Whether cruising in ruminating acoustic mode or wringing emotional
truths from disheartening circumstances against a clamorous rock beat, he
sets a tone of embattled optimism that invests a line like "Down here love's
the only gun I trust" with more substance than a more conventionally gifted
singer could ever get away with.
It's forgivable, therefore, to labor under the illusion that Ryan's voice
does most of the heavy lifting: to buy into that whole cliché of "He could
sing the phone book and make it sound like Dylan at his world-weariest."
From A Late Night High Rise, however, confirms just how crucial the
right musical setting plays in his music.
From A Late Night High Rise is a deeply personal record -- informed,
according to press materials, by the untimely death of a close friend and
the news that Ryan's brother was sentenced to 30 years in prison (the latter
explicitly addressed in the spoken-word "The Complete Family"). The
singer-songwriter's durable sense of hope is still intact, but the album's
spare, remote vibe, sustained by melancholy keyboard arrangements that at
times echo the chilly synth-pop of the early '80s, comes close to
overpowering that hard-won sanguinity.
When Ryan offers a snippet of grace like "And if you wake up scared / I hope
you're not alone," from the affecting "Babybird," it's all the more
effective in contrast to the whispery anguish that drenches the opening
"Follow the Leader." And it takes longer than expected to relax into the
gentle rewards of the quietly pretty "Providence," given the song's
distracting foundation, which recalls the icy preprogrammed beats of a
vintage Casio. Eventually a sense of faith, shaken but resolved, does
win out over the impressionistic haze (so aptly echoed in the purplish cover
art), making it easier, on repeated listens, to appreciate the sentiments
offered in "And Never Look Back," "Victory Waltz" and "Misundercould."
In a way, From A Late Night High Rise is Ryan's most emotionally
honest effort, in the sense that listening to it more closely approximates
the struggle played out in its lyrics. It's easy to key right in to the
catharsis offered by May Day and East Autumn Grin or the
reflections of Concussion or
the Wires. It's a little more work to crack the prevailing atmosphere of
wee-hours introspection, feeding on its own sadness, that informs High
Rise, an album that's slower than is usual in Ryan's catalog to
negotiate a shaky truce with its demons.
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