Matthew Ryan's songs almost always deal with conflict — often without resolution. In his incisively detailed lyrics, people struggle with themselves, lovers, family or society. Throughout, there are references to the valiant nature of love and passionate living. Sometimes the valiant rise to glory. But often the climbing never ends, or it simply turns out to be the whole point.
Ryan's musical conflicts reach beyond storylines, too. Since his 1997 A&M Records debut, the Nashville rocker has written sweepingly cinematic rock anthems comparable to U2, the Waterboys or the Killers, yet he levels the fist-pumping buildup of the arrangements with a raspy, intimate voice and poetic lyrics that have been hailed by top singer-songwriters Steve Earle, Johnette Napolitano and Lucinda Williams, all of whom have collaborated with him.
So it's fitting that Ryan's new band name, and the name of his new album, suggest conflict as well. April release Matthew Ryan vs. the Silver State also calls to mind other aspects of Ryan's work. He's constantly evoked the clash of the individual against larger forces, whether corporations or governments, something he openly admits when discussing his struggle to create meaningful music in an era where the focus is on media posturing, light entertainment and nihilistic fare.
Thursday, June 12, at the Continental Club, 3700Main, 713-533-9525.
Even the new direction his music has taken in recent years trades on conflict. While the pulsing bass lines and anthemic guitars remain, he balances them with effervescent melodies, cooing counterpoint harmonies, wispy string sections and bright, bouncy electronic touches. That divergence between driving rock and melodic pop frames his hoarse yet compassionate vocal tone in a manner that lends new layers to his accessible songs.
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How well he brings it all together makes Matthew Ryan vs. the Silver State his strongest collection in a consistently good catalog. As usual, Ryan's lyrics are endlessly quotable, such as this opening stanza from "It Could've Been Worse," about a troubled teen who turns to music to escape neglect at home and alienation at school: "Where you come from / You learn to disappear / To cover up your fear / With punk rock and stuff," Ryan sings in a smoke-burnt conversational voice that's both sympathetic and taunting, continuing, "When you were a kid / You listened to the Clash / You learned to never ask / Where your Daddy was."