Jot down a list of the ten or so best songwriters that have surfaced over the last few years and chances are Matthew Ryan doesn’t make the cut. There are many possible reasons for this, although none of them would have anything to do with his talent for crafting a haunting, stirring song; most complaints that are tied to Ryan’s work are attached to his voice, which sometimes sounds like he has just swallowed a gallon of orange juice after dousing his gums with Listerine. I’ll admit that it is sometimes a challenge to find an ear for his unique instrument, but it’s also true that I can’t imagine anyone but him singing the songs he chooses to write. The topics are mostly dark, speak of death, the end, misery, and never looking back; it’s as if they’re laced with bits and pieces of his lungs and are exhaled by the power of his bleeding heart—a heart that could only beat for him.
Ryan’s latest, From a Late Night High-Rise, could certainly be called his life-support project, only because there is a certain strain, a certain struggle that clings to the thinnest ice on every note, where the sadness becomes beautiful.
The songs on this album, originally to be titled For Her, were written for a deceased female friend and for his brother, who is currently serving a 30-year prison sentence. Honesty is found everywhere on High Rise, from the opening “Follow the Leader,” where Ryan sings “If you ever really want to get lost, then follow me,” to the raw “Gone For Good,” which includes the lyrics “our igloo will soon be in poisoned silver pools/ where no fever or cool breeze will ever comfort/ just dead silent still forever and until your landfill swallows every June and you’re gone…gone for good.” I can’t think of a more sincere album released this year, and that’s probably because there isn’t one. December releases don’t get much better (or heartfelt) than this.