Matthew Ryan's "It Could've Been Worse" | Song of the Week | Indy Week
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Matthew Ryan's "It Could've Been Worse" 

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The photos don't help. Almost every picture of Matthew Ryan—starting with the back-cover shots, a triptych that could be titled "Tortured Artist by Typewriter," on his 1997 debut May Day—depicts him as a brooding sort, the weight of the world on his shoulders. It's Hamlet meets Atlas in the Nashville Underground. Then there's the combination of his vocals, a potent rasp of a whisper that seems to catch in his throat like bad news, and the atmospheric roots-rock built layer by layer in support. Those things, and more, have conspired to have Ryan misdiagnosed with the three d's—dour, depressed, and defeated—even as he was winning fans the likes of Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams.

But while his work might feel like, to paraphrase one of his other album titles, it's sending regret out over the wires, his songs are always tempered with hope. Just spend some time soaking in "It Could've Been Worse," the centerpiece of Ryan's latest, Matthew Ryan Vs. the Silver State. And while you're doing that, we'll let Ryan break it all down for you.

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: There's probably at least a kernel of you in every song you've written, but my understanding is that the songs on Matthew Ryan Vs. the Silver State are almost totally rooted in your life and experiences. Can you talk about where these songs come from?

MATTHEW RYAN: When I was 17, I worked in a screen-printing shop in Newark, Dela. My boss's name was Ron. He owned the place. He had a paternal thing with his company and his employees. He championed dreams, and he was flexible. And, for me, he was very patient. I was perpetually late to work. He never really held it over my head. He knew I was an artist before I knew it. And he encouraged that me to reach outside of the normal and the safe. I was raised to work hard, trust the company suspiciously, fight quietly for my own kingdom. But those things never made sense to me. I wanted to contribute in the fashion that my gut told me was possible. But I remember saying to him that it seemed to me that through people's lives they gathered things and relationships; and, at some unexpected point, the accumulation would peak. And then shorlty after the peak, things and relationships started to fall away, disappear, end and get lost. I remember us talking about that. Now, of course, it's probably a thought we all have in some form. But I'll never forget Ron's response, it was more ore less, that that's exactly why we have to make it mean something and that only each of us can define that for ourselves.

There are a lot of stories like this that lead me to what Matthew Ryan Vs. the Silver State is about. There's something about working people, their depth and complexity and heroism are often embattled by cliché. As if that experience and that drama in the everyday is somehow meaningless in the information age and new communities and technologies. I wanted to try and explain that there are still great stories unraveling today. Even if things are moving so quick, we're still always defining what it means to be human in those very human, tactile, hopeful and persistent ways.

How could it have been worse for the protagonist in "It Could've Been Worse," or is this a case of someone repeating a mantra of sorts to convince himself that something is true?

It is true. It is a mantra. The character in "It Could've Been Worse" is still alive. The suicide is a metaphor for rejecting all that has been dogging and attaching itself to him. Sometimes we get defined by our communities that deny who we really are. And sometimes we have to disappear only to resurface in some nuclear version of what people were afraid of. I mean, it's really a song about artists and awkward outsiders becoming heroes. How many times did we here about Kurt Cobain's resentment on some level of many in his audience because many of them were the same people that dismissed or ridiculed him for being different, or strange, or sensitive. Now those people were singing along by the thousands. In many ways, "It Could've Been Worse" is about Kurt Cobain. It's an attempt at defining the common story of the iconic outsider.

Sadly Cobain is gone, so in some ways, the song is a cautionary tale. Live to fight another day is the simple version of the message. I can relate to half of Cobain's story. I've been mislabeled and misunderstood: dour, depressed, defeated. These things aren't me. The characters I write about are resilient. They're fighters against the hard things in living. The only difference between me and Kurt Cobain are numbers. And of course, I'm alive. This is true of a lot people out there. I just want us to keep fighting for something we can define.

The second-to-last verse offers this: "But I'll never believe/ That you jumped and just ended there/ The note you left read ‘look everywhere'/ You'll never bury me." Is there reason for hope, or is the person telling the story just in denial or engaging in wishful thinking?

Hope and resilience.

The bookends of the last verse are "A stereo and a pile of cassettes" and "Some broken chords on cheap guitar." Music may or may not have saved this person's life, but do you think it is capable of saving lives?

Songs are capable of comfort and unity. It its highest form, a song is like all good art: It offers the wisdom we're not born with. They're like the muscle against discontent, disappointment, conflict, definitive loss, and all those things and events that can challenge who we think we are. It's in those things that songs can present options and open people up to possibilities beyond what they may be going through.

The names Paul Westerberg and Bruce Springsteen have come up in reviews of your records, the former for your way with a lyric ("She's the first girl you kissed/ She's the first girl you miss/ When you're feeling like this") and the latter, among other reasons, for the sense of drama in your songs. Is the line "Her mascara was born to run" a nod to those two musicians, or am I reading too much into that?

Those names have come up for years. You're not reading too much into it. I've wrestled with defining myself outside of my heroes. Not because I feel like ‘'m not saying something unique to my time in a unique fashion. But because in an instant judgment society, nuance can get lost—or even worse, overlooked. The first time I opened my mouth to sing in a public place I heard their names.

They are both monuments to me. They were and still are ambassadors to me. Westerberg led me through my dark teen years. Springsteen showed me what it meant to be a man. They are what's right about American music. They've become bloodlines on some level. Almost like part of your nationality. Like I'm an Irish-Catholic Springbergian from Pennsylvania. Pop music insists that fashion is part of the deal. But that's what makes it disposable. Sometimes something lasts. And I believe that that's the difference between songs and pop music. Sometimes the two meet. Springsteen and Westerberg are connected to bloodlines before them. That's why they're durable. And with my own vernacular and sense of history, that's what I'm doing.

You recorded "Somebody Got Murdered" on an earlier record, and you name-drop The Clash in the first verse of this song. How important a band is The Clash to you? Can you talk about some other bands and artists who are important to you, that maybe give you instant inspiration?

I love music that manages to live outside of ego. You can't have intent when you sing a song. It's not an easy thing to do. The Clash made that seem easy. If you've ever argued with your parents about the future, if you ever been so sure about a gut feeling that you spoke with primal urgency or delicacy, that's what a song should feel like. The Clash made that seem easy. I am helpless to music like this. And it can't be defined by genre. It's a human thing. There's a guy in Ireland right now named Danny Darcy; he's been doing that for me lately, too. He couldn't be more different than The Clash. He's kinda folky, ambient. But I get no sense of sales pitch from him. I only get the sense that however naive, he's trying to express something that seems elusive.

Can you tell us about the band that backs you on the record, Vs. the Silver State, and describe their musical contributions on "It Could've Been Worse?"

They made it sound like a gang. They made it feel like WE rather than I. That's all I've wanted these songs to do. Brian Bequette in particular is very connected to where I'm coming from and where I'm wanting it to go. There's something in the collective and the singular. Neither is better than the other, but we have to try and understand what a particular weather is asking for. Brian and I have years of communication about that now. Brian played the piano on "It Could've Been Worse." In fact, Doug Lancio and Steve Latanation, we'e all played together for years now. Doug played the bass. Steve played the drums. Doug and I handled the guitars. It all amounts to something more unique than hired people to come in and pretend to feel something.

I hope "It Could've Been Worse" is one of those songs that quietly continues to move towards people that need it. "The River" by Springsteen strikes me as a lightning rod of a song like this. With any luck and persistence, "It Could've Been Worse" will prove itself honest and valuable over time. I don't think it's a cultish song. I thing it could speak to anyone that's struggling to define themselves outside the laws of the safe. Hell, I think it could speak to those struggling inside the laws of safe as well.

Matthew Ryan Vs. the Silver State plays at The Pour House with Garrison Starr at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 4. Tickets are $10-$12.

  • Ryan on hope, resilience, and rock 'n' roll as a life preserver

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