Hustle Up Starlings
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
For an artist whose career began 20 years ago, Matthew Ryan is getting attention of late as if he’s the new kid in town. The Chester, Pennsylvania native received some of the best notices of his career for his 2014 album Boxers, a collection of chest-pounding rockers and desolate ballads that showcased his anthemic songwriting and hoarse-throated vocals to great effect.
His newest release, Hustle Up Starlings, continues in that vein, with some subtle changes. Brian Fallon, who guested on Boxers, is aboard as the producer this time around, and The Gaslight Anthem frontman, a kindred songwriting spirit to Ryan, knows how to play up his strengths. By dialing down the guitars a notch or two, Fallon assures that Ryan’s tales of lost love and broken promise have a lot more room to echo off the relentless backbeat of the uptempo numbers.
Ryan really doesn’t do irony, preferring to put his heart on his sleeve and in his wordplay. “Our guts are born in that fiery trench/ Between hurt and hope,” from the pulsating opener “(I Just Died) Like An Aviator,” is the kind of pulpy, evocative couplet you can expect sprinkled throughout every one of the ten songs. The vocals also reflect this go-for-broke aesthetic, as Ryan often starts off in a hushed whisper only to jump an octave into a desperate howl.
Relationship songs like the title track and “Maybe I’ll Disappear” do a wonderful job of showing how warm memories of better times are often torn asunder by the unforgiving details of the present day. “Don’t put your heart in the hands of imbeciles,” he warns in the ravaged ballad “All I Wanted,” sounding very much like a man who has made that mistake a few too many times before.
Ryan occasionally drops in some moments of levity, especially on “Bastard” and its quirky refrain of “That bastard wrecked my car.” More than anything though, he takes an earnest stance on the correlation between rock and roll and eternal youth, preferring to bask in that sweet spot “where loud guitars get pushed around by drums” and, as he states in the rousing closing track, to always remain where “Summer Never Ends.”
On “Battle Born,” he pays homage to musicians who have flamed out before him but have nonetheless inspired and enthralled him, as opposed to the “hollow clowns/ And their useless sentiments” that achieve music stardom these days. Hustle Up Starlings proves that Matthew Ryan’s music can hang with those of the heroes he mentioned, even as he’s doing his fans a favor by combining career longevity with musical integrity.