Most late-20-something songwriters would love to be making the kind of "mistakes" that Ryan has made since his Nashville move. His 1997 debut album, Mayday, had critics tripping over each other to connect the dots from Springsteen to Mellencamp to Westerberg, and then dusting themselves off to draw dotted lines to everybody from Van Morrison and Tom Waits to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Last year's fine follow-up, East Autumn Grin, offered guitar rock that was more atmospheric but still undeniably tuneful, its slight rootsy undercurrent perhaps over-acknowledged due to Ryan's Nashville address. In fact, Ryan's parting of ways with the Interscope label may represent the only blemish on his career, and with the music biz being the shaky roller-coaster that it is, Ryan can hardly blame himself for that.
While already working on his third release, Ryan began kicking around the idea of making what he describes as a "punk-folk type record," a mindset that freed him up to write in a way he hadn't before or, in his words, "in a way I hadn't allowed myself to."
"The first record, Mayday, was trying to figure out, 'How do you make a record?'" he says. "The second record was complete self-indulgence, you know, 'I'm going to tip my cap to every DNA strand in my body.' And this record was just, 'Well, I've got nothing to lose, so I'm just going to say what I want in 10 songs.'"
The result was the stripped-close-to-the-bone, pedal-steel accented Concussion. Recorded in a week and a day, one of the souvenirs of the experience is a friendly and nostalgic background hiss over the recording. But, when the recording time can be measured in days instead of weeks or months, living with the occasional imperfection comes with the territory. "It was fun for me because I have a tendency to kind of over-labor the process," says Ryan. "The songwriting doesn't necessarily get over-labored, but recording does. I think I learned a valuable lesson with this record. ... The plan was to use a minimalist approach. But not only was that the plan, time dictated that it go that way, which was a blessing." He adds with a laugh, "I've always been a fan of accidental music, and this record really lent itself to being accidental."
Ryan's songwriting seems anything but "accidental." The opening to "Happy Hour," kind of a Springsteen-by-way-of-Tom T. Hall number, sets a helluva scene: "The clocks are quiet, Little Joe's in jail/He got stopped last Sunday, piss drunk and ornery/Took a swing on bail/And Clyde only smiles when Maryanne is here." Yep, Springsteen's name will be coming up again with this record, especially with Ryan trading in the impressionistic writing angle that dominated his first two albums for more of a story-song style, most notably on "Chickering Angel" and the unflinching, first-person murder tale, "Night Watchman."
And for the first time, a cover song shows up on a Ryan record, and it's an inspired choice. The Clash's "Somebody Got Murdered" is given an interpretation inspired equally by Ryan's instincts and, he claims, his inability to figure out the song's chords. "I think it's a wonderful protest song. I liked the way The Clash always spoke plainly to say some of the most complex things," Ryan says. "You felt that Joe Strummer was actually incensed when he wrote 'Straight to Hell,' and said it in a language he knew and the best that he could."
Throughout, Ryan's lyrics are delivered in his trademark whispery rasp (think Steve Earle before his morning coffee), words catching in his throat like bad news. His vocals frequently bring to mind those of his new tourmate, Lucinda Williams: Both voices hint at late-night promise, even while airing late-night despair. On a duet with Ryan on the aptly titled "Devastation," Williams infuses the line "Remember when we met? We were so innocent" with spirits culled from a dozen doomed relationships. "It was just wonderfully beautiful and tragic at the same time, because her voice has that weird mixture of innocence and knowing too much and disappointment and beauty," says Ryan of Williams' contribution. The serially self-effacing Ryan would never admit it, but he could very well be talking about his own old-soul pipes.
Ryan's upcoming appearance with Williams at The Ritz comes almost exactly a year to the day since his last Triangle visit when he opened for Earle last November. However, there'll be a noticeable difference this time through: Ryan's leaving his band at home. "The record lends itself to it, and I've found out that some other songs off some other records really, really took well to being pared down and exposed," he says about the decision to go it alone. "And actually, all of a sudden, the songs and the melodies stood out perhaps the way they always should have. [In the past I've thought] 'I'm making a Jesus and Mary Chain record,' and I'm not. But that's what I think I'm doing," he adds with an explosive laugh. At this point, he impersonates loud, random feedback. (On his albums, Ryan comes off as serious as a head injury, but on the phone he's a pisser.)
"I'm kind of forcing myself to do it," he says of the solo tour. "I have a tendency to hide behind a band, and I had to kind of acknowledge that," he says, sounding a little like he's still getting himself psyched up for the experience. "It's kind of a scary proposition because I know it's going to be rather large audiences. But it's going to be trial by fire for me because I feel that I need to get better at performing."
Then he ends with a good-natured quip: "I feel it's real natural for me to alienate people rather than convert them."