(Originally published at Medium.com in the autumn of 2014)
Matthew Ryan’s latest release, Boxers, is an album crafted by one familiar with real suffering, who’s seen how dark the nights can get, and doesn’t quit because he’s learned the sun always rises. It is the inevitable opus from a well-versed artist who, with this album, joins the ranks of such soulful songwriters as Springsteen, Cohen, Dylan, and Strummer.
“How do you say goodbye to a dream that just won’t die? Is it a feeling or is it a lie? Yer a boxer against the ropes and there’s blood running down yer throat, but this is the fight you chose.”
Boxers is the kind of album you want to hear with the dial turned up because the guitars, drums, bass, occasional strings, and Ryan’s voice sound best at 11. It feels blue collar. It smells like the drink soaked wood at an old bar or the cold, damp leaves of fall with wood-fire smoke in the air. It has a working man’s fight to it, but is not limited to class. There’s a sense that this is the kind of album Joe Strummer would have put together in response to the last global economic downturn. It is a collection of songs that kicks hard against the night and the forces that wear us down. Each kick not always in anger but out of a resilience.
The title track blows the doors open asking questions that don’t wait for an answer: “How do you say goodbye to a dream that just won’t die? Is it a feeling or is it a lie? Yer a boxer against the ropes and there’s blood running down yer throat, but this is the fight you chose. Here we go.” And so the tracks that follow come on like endurance training lessons for those beat down and on the edge of losing hope.
There are plenty of good albums hitting the digital shelves, but it’s been a long time since I have heard one with the grit, grief, and gravitas in Boxers. There is a fighting hope throughout the album. It’s a hope carried on not despite the circumstances but through them and out the other side.
“It is unforgivable to walk by one who’s suffering without, at the very least, an acknowledgement of shared humanity.”
In an interview I did with Ryan about his earlier album, In The Dusk of Everything, he said, “It is unforgivable to walk by one who’s suffering without, at the very least, an acknowledgement of shared humanity.” That acknowledgement is throughout Boxers, but spelled out explicitly in “Suffer No More” when sings: “All we want today is something like a fair shake, And all we want tomorrow is a ladder that won’t fall away or be thrown away. Don’t wanna suffer no more.”
He quiets the electric guitars, switching to his acoustic with “We are Libertines” to make sure you don’t miss that we all are in a culture filling us with cotton candy instead of a true sense of home and substance. The song could be mistaken for unbounded nihilism if it weren’t for the almost resigned plea, “No one says stop, No one says ‘no,’ No one says please…please come home.” It is a poignant commentary on the state of culture. But he surrounds it with fighting songs that pulse for more than a sad status quo.
Ryan once described how he sees his role as an artist: “My work is often received as depressive or dark. I don’t see it that way at all. Above all, I believe art should be useful. To be human means to be confronted by both dark and light. The arts are generally trying to communicate a wisdom we’re not necessarily born with. An intimate relationship with the arts can help us to avoid the BIG mistakes.” Boxers exemplifies this –like a well-worn traveler coming in out of the down pouring rain-filled night to remind you that you might feel lonely but you are not alone.
We’ve had enough cynicism in our generation and plenty of naive pop optimism. I am glad to hear Matthew Ryan stirring up the wise old ghosts of battered winning hope. You can’t hear Boxers and not imagine there is a crowd you can relate to singing every chorus right alongside you.
You can get Boxers at Matthew Ryan’s Bandcamp with the full release coming October 14th. Get a copy and turn it up loud.