The angry young man sounds cold, honest, near the end. His voice shivers. He gets closer and closer to the mic, as if it might warm him through another fever-dream. Sometimes he sounds like Tom Waits, but there's no medicine-show jive. Everything has been stripped away; there's no medicine left. "Life alone will humble you," Matthew Ryan confesses on his third and most recent album, Concussion. "If you had everything you wished for," he asks, "what would you live for, and what would you lose?" There's no distilling his songs, but their wisdom points in one direction: Face the darkest truths -- then go on.
Ryan grew up in a working-class neighborhood outside Philadelphia but eventually wound up in Nashville. His first two records, May Day and East Autumn Grin, were tremendously smart post-Dylan folk rock -- his band pushed his desperate enigmas as if they were playing chicken with a thunderstorm. Steve Earle called Ryan "one of the best songwriters I've ever seen come to Nashville." Released from major-label contracts, Ryan cut and mixed Concussion in eight days, but it sounds like one long, sleepless night of self-discovery. Behind the acoustic guitar and charred voice, you can hear pedal steel, cello, organ and bass, but, like the characters drifting through his stories, they all sound like ghosts seeking but never finding rest.
This will be Ryan's first nightclub date in St. Louis, and he'll be joined by guitar ace and fine songwriter Will Kimbrough. It's an early show, and, for anyone interested in how far good songs can go, it may be among the year's very best.