Matthew Ryan’s last album, 2000’s East Autumn Grin, was, despite its quieter moments, a big album. It had a big sound that owed a debt to Ryan heroes like U2, Springsteen, and The Waterboys, and it was recorded for a big label, A&M. Unfortunately, despite critical acclaim, it wasn’t a big seller.
Having parted ways with A&M, Ryan is releasing Concussion on the smaller Waxy Silver Records, which is also home to fellow Nashvillian Will Kimbrough. Appropriately, the music on Concussion is smaller, often scaled down to just Ryan’s voice and guitar. “Life alone will humble you,” Ryan sings on the funereally-paced, ex-con on the run folk song, “Rabbit.” You can hear all the spaces as Ryan weaves the tale in his well-worn, nicotine-ravaged voice. Ryan sounds a bit like Tom Waits as he describes the sad characters in the hypnotic and achingly pretty “Happy Hour.” “We’re all moving targets and it’s all for sale,” he sings.
Richard McLaurin’s pedal steel and David Henry’s cello color the dreamlike “Drift.” And Lucinda Williams pops up on “Devastation,” which despite the title, is one of the more musically upbeat tracks here. The song’s two lovers, miles from the youthful innocence with which they began, express their loneliness and regret. “Chickering Angel” is a dramatic, slow motion crash of emotions and twisted metal.
Ryan is a master of quirky lines that take you inside the heads of his characters. “So take the lint from your pocket and offer it like a sacrament,” he sings on “Autopilot.”
A re-worked cover of The Clash’s “Somebody Got Murdered,” on first glance, seems like an odd addition to this collection of songs, but actually, the song’s ruminations on the permanence of death seem to fit right in.
Concussion is an intimate listening experience full of moments of vulnerability, delicacy and gruff, hard won wisdom. This one won’t be a big hit, either, but it’s no small wonder.