I have to admit right off the bat, this was my first exposure to Matthew Ryan's music. And that's a shame because "Dear Lover" is simply destined for my Top Ten of 2010 list. It stands out as one of this years best albums. On the positive side, Ryan has been releasing music since 1997 so there is a lot of material to get caught up with. If it's anywhere as emotionally engaging, lyrically brilliant and brutally honest as his latest, I'm in for a treat.
Ryan's work on "Dear Lover" is proof you don't need an over-inflated, over-produced album full of vocal histrionics to get to the heart of the listener. You simply "feel" this music and that connection starts with his wonderfully raspy vocal work. Ryan's voice is an amazing instrument in itself, not a grating rasp, but a soothing hush, at times during the quieter tracks almost a whisper.
Rat-a-tat drum beats that sound like gun shots being fired get things started on album opener "City Life", which quickly has a blooping keyboard pattern added that carries on throughout the song. Electric guitars cry in the background while the strums of acoustic guitars accentuate Ryan's impassioned vocal. The song, as on most of the album, is mixed so Ryan's vocal is to the forefront. Even with everything going on musically, it never overpowers the story being told lyrically. It's a scintillating, simmering opening to the album.
"I could be your superhero/I could be your biggest disappointment" Ryan sings over screaming feedback on the title track before declaring "Most of us start out thinking it's easy/When the hardest thing to do is remember how to smile girl". It's the first of a number of brutally honest looks at relationships and love.
After a couple harder edged songs to lead off the album, things slow down with the tender ballad "Some Streets Lead Nowhere". With some piano and strings accompanying an acoustic guitar and his voice, the song is so intimate, you feel as if you're intruding on something personal you shouldn't be privy to as he describes the failure of a relationship. "I can't tell you where I've been now darling/There are hawks inside my head/And every smile and every good thing/Are picked at 'til they're dead." As hauntingly beautiful as it is unrelentingly sad, the song is a masterpiece.
The electronic beats of "We Are Snowmen" pick the mood back up, ever so slightly. The song is still very sparse, with lone piano notes repeating throughout and ambient keyboard swells surrounding Ryan's singing. It's yet another of many highlights on the album. Even more electronic is "Spark", which sounds like Chicane could have produced it, an almost trance-like dance track with stinging guitar. There are also a couple anthemic rock tracks in "PS" and "The Wilderness", in keeping with the diversity of the record.
"Some Streets Lead Nowhere" is not the only stunning ballad on the album. "Your Museum" is a straightforward love song ("Maybe once/In a hundred million years/Has there been one like you my dead/So bright, so pure, so clear/The torch that lights my way") while the album closes with two powerful pieces starting with "The World Is...", an uplifting lyric about keeping on in the face of the daily bullshit we all deal with.
"The End Of A Ghost Story" closes the album and it's yet another brilliant lyric. "I see lovers in the rain/Stepping on and off of trains/Just waiting there like baggage claims/Hoping someone says their name" Ryan surveys before pondering our mortality and ending with "We're too young/I don't ever want you to die/Why do newborn babies cry?/Ask a widow she knows why". It's another sparse, emotional performance.
This has been a tough review to write for one simple reason. When music moves me as much as "Dear Lover" did from beginning to end, it's sometimes tough to put it into words. I hope I've done this album the justice it deserves. The word masterpiece gets dragged out too often to describe "good" albums. In this case, it surely applies.