Music has style. Sometimes it’s dressed up in cracked leather, two packs of cigarettes, and a haggard resistance. It can come polished, hyper-saturated, scrubbed clean and last for a moment. Matthew Ryan’s latest release, Hustle Up Starlings is a mix of the rough and tumble, and hitting the showers to settle into the leather wingback, sipping a well-aged bourbon with well-earned gravitas. It carries the kind of wisdom that is threaded from blue collars and is unapologetically at ease among a white-collared company. It’s full of good tones, great melody, and the always reliable fine poetry Ryan’s known for, but more than all this there’s a sense of settledness in his music that comes with living honestly and learning to take yourself less seriously.
A consigliere for real life…
Matthew Ryan sidles up and tells you a story that you didn’t know you needed to hear. He’s a bit like Robert Duval’s consigliere, Tom Hagen, in “The Godfather” — an outsider with eyes on the landscape, making sure you know that whatever is behind doesn’t hold you back from what is ahead. But the decision of what to with this information is up to you.
I’ve been taking in Hustle up Starlings for nearly eight weeks and come to sense it’s a different album for Ryan. Maybe it’s because it has that old-school quality that comes with being performed and recorded live. You can feel it coming through the speakers.
I suspect it’s going to be an album that will hold its own over time. From the crisp opening, let’s-get-shit-done of “(I Just Died) Like An Aviator” to the hope-filled, anthem-esque “Summer Never Ends” and each slowed, stripped down alternating track in-between, Starlings has all the best of Ryan’s 20+ years sounds and writing packed into 40 minutes.
I found sounds that I haven’t heard since my teenage years in the 80’s driving through sauna-like Texas late nights just to listen to music. His “Bastard”’s flanged guitar and driving top-hat brought me back to The Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry” album. “Bastard” is the kind of song you find on late-night radio, smoking cigarettes with the window down and hoping to dust off the evening before heading to bed after a not so great night out.
Listen to the cracks in your broken heart…
Ryan is a subtle, hope-filled poet who is writing the best kinds of verse — the kind that acknowledges your pain while offering some hints of light in unexpected places. “Close Your Eyes” is one of the many songs on this album that does just this. He sings, “There’s a lot of bodies by the side of the road/ careful who’s drivin’/you don’t wanna be a ghost/Now, it won’t always be easy but it won’t always be hard/Just listen to the cracks in your broken heart.”
In short, kid, there’s plenty of garbage called wisdom but the best place to find it is where you are hurt the most. These are not the words of the nihilist rocker, an angst-filled adult-child, or a naive pop-singer. Ryan didn’t come to this because he thought the words sounded nice. He has experienced what he's singing and you are grateful somebody is saying it.
“Keep going with some lightning in your head” is how Ryan describes the song “Run Rabbit Run”. He continues, “It’s all hope and perseverance. We get up and we go to work. We believe in tomorrow, even when we’re not sure what tomorrow will be.” It’s not the bloody-knuckle fight you hear in his previous album, “Boxers”. This isn’t desperation. He’s encouraging a longview, an enduring forward momentum that doesn’t deny the darkness but keeps moving toward something better, regardless.
Ryan crosses a threshold into new space…
The collection of songs that make up an album are complete when they go to press, unchanging. They carry weight. It’s why the good ones last and the bad ones sink to the bottom never to be heard from again. But the good ones are cairns — markers on the trail to where this particular path is going, the culmination of where the artist has been until now. Ryan crosses a threshold into new space with Hustle Up Starlings. You feel the history and the respect he has for not only his own, but yours, too. And it presents the possibility that more is on the way. There’s a reason for this movement.
It’s not a matter of “growing up” as much as it is an act of unintentional gravitas that comes from nearly giving up believing one can make great music and, then, deciding that good art comes out of the best of the stories we encounter every day. Matthew put the punk to rest so he could step into a classic, wise beauty of making good music. He’s taking his own advice to hustle up and you should listen.