Matthew Ryan remains one restless soul. His fourth widely-distributed album (Ryan also has two limited-edition, website-only releases) finds the singer-songwriter overwhelmed by characters out of step with their lovers, themselves, and/or the world around them.
It’s nothing new. The Nashville artist established such an MO at the onset, when he wrapped his 40-grit voice around the line, “I’m guilty of all these things,” on the chorus of “Guilty”, the first track on his 1997 debut Mayday. He’s been doing it ever since, more often than not with stirring results.
Again using the atmospheric, Lanois-esque template of his second album, 2000′s East Autumn Grin, as his canvas, Ryan comes across as a songwriter with the heaviest of hearts on Regret Over The Wires. He’s prone to dramatic darkness — the somber, album-opening “Return To Me” explores a relationship’s demise caused by substance abuse, while the sweet, R&B-inflected “Trouble Doll” comes off as a plea to a friend on the brink of suicide.
Elsewhere, Ryan gets political. The venomous “Caged Bird” takes issue with vapid sloganeering, while “I Hope Your God Has Mercy On Mine” is a seething state-of-affairs account with lines such as, “They’d charge you for the air that you breathe,/If they could one get that meter on your face.”
Still, it’s the levity found elsewhere that gives Regret Over The Wires its necessary third dimension. “Nails” is a craggy, Tom Waits-like waltz about barflies with the punchline, “All I need is a little bit of luck/The kind that comes in a good haircut.” “Every Good Thing” brings forth the uplift of parenthood, and the stratospheric “Skylight” closes the album with a sense of hope as Ryan sings, “I see the stars above the skylight.”
Fans predisposed to the more straightforward Americana approach of Ryan’s first and third albums (Mayday and the mostly acoustic Concussion) might be put off by the dense nature of this disc. In many ways it is Ryan’s most difficult album to crack, one that might unfold only after several listens. But it also might be his most rewarding — a moving, ambitious collection of songs from a lifelong searcher. As he sings in the urgent “The Little Things”: “Songs are souvenirs for the peace that hasn’t come/And if it never does, better still they be sung.”