If you’ve read Rick Bragg’s memoir All Over but the Shoutin’, it’s impossible to hear a song like Matthew Ryan’s “Night Watchman” as anything but a soundtrack. Bragg’s account of growing up in the poorest reaches of the South, under the shadow of a murderous father and the light of a mother who used herself as a human shield to protect her boys, paints a bleak portrait of lives that are ruled by malevolent facets of Fate. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the book is that Bragg’s father didn’t die violently at the hands of his sons. He merely drank himself into a slow, regretful, largely unacknowledged death.
The protagonist of “Night Watchman” isn’t so “fortunate”. His father delivers savage beatings and his brother kills himself. Ultimately, to the sound of summer crickets, thirteen-year old Hank Low stabs his father 30 times. It’s bleak, it’s harrowing, as if Ryan stayed up all night watching the porch lights of Springsteen’s Nebraska dim in the darkness, and then he set off on its dry dirt roads to find stories yet untold.
The Springsteen comparison has haunted Ryan since his debut, Mayday, and through his brilliant sophomore effort, East Autumn Grin. What’s a guy to do? Ryan’s grainy rasp is evocative of storysong giants like Springsteen, Waits, and Cohen — his storytelling style equally so. A Matthew Ryan song, especially the ones on Concussion, unfold slowly like flowers; his language is economical, with few nods to poetics. In songs like “Night Watchman”, he merely offers up the barest skeletons of description, letting them take on their own cold beauty. Ryan hasn’t tried to walk the same mythic turf as Springsteen cuts like “Youngstown” or “The River”, but his roots seem to grow in the same soil.
Much of Concussion eases by with a lethargic pace that would make Gillian Welch & David Rawlings proud. Lyrics sound like they’re sung on last breaths, and stark guitar notes ring out with an exhausted quality. In spots, that makes for tough listening — as much as Ryan might chafe at the suggestion, Concussion may be the one true heir to Nebraska in its unrelenting bleakness. There’s nary a bright light to be seen, even on the gorgeous debut with Lucinda Williams, “Devastation”. The song is sweeping in its aching, but the characters’ regrets have rendered them earthbound.
Ryan’s characters are continually presented to us in those first moments after things have gone horribly wrong, when the first acrid scents of aftermath are making themselves known. Hank Low looks back on killing his father. The narrator of “Chickering Angel” leaves the house he’s robbing seconds after the crash that kills his girlfriend as she waits in the getaway car. “Happy Hour” gathers a crowd of such voices together for the “affirmation” that “either a pearl-shaped pill is killing your will / Or you’re tooth and nail”. The album closes with “Shake the Tree”, promising that “one day your misfortune / Will shine like a crown / One day your misfortune / Will all crumble down”. It’s a simple promise, and perhaps the only kind that characters like these can truly believe in. Much like Rick Bragg’s mother, Ryan’s salt-of-the-Earth characters suffer because it is all they can do, believing that surely one day they’ll emerge, like Job, vindicated and at peace.
Their personal salvations are simple. The narrator of “Chickering Angel” admits, “I’m sad and I don’t know why / But with you by my side / I’m nearly satisfied”. In “Drift”, a lover’s told, “Only wish that you had turned / To say / It’s alright I’ll still love you anyway”. It can be heartbreaking, but Ryan rarely overplays his hand, and much of Concussion rings with life-sized tragedy.
Ryan and his bandmates recorded Concussion in eight days, but even that seems like a long time for an album this basic and straightforward. If Ryan wanted to concoct a story that he stood at the crossroads and was possessed all night by the spirits of the dispossessed and haunted, it wouldn’t be hard to believe him. As it stands, there are sentiments in this record that I’m, quite frankly, afraid of — tales of personal wastelands always have an unsettling “there but for the grace of God go I” quality. I hope my future doesn’t hold a night dark enough to allow some of these songs to reveal themselves in all their terrible beauty. If so, I can only hope to create even a glimmer of the art that courses through Concussion.