Matthew Ryan, ‘Boxers’ – Album Review
There's a sequence in the classic 1967 Paul Newman prison film, 'Cool Hand Luke,' during which our titular hero, played with ineffable cool by Newman, squares off in a brutal boxing match against a much larger inmate named Dragline (George Kennedy). Luke's beaten even before the first punch is thrown and he knows it, but no matter how many times he gets knocked down, he wills himself back up -- until even Dragline, flummoxed and a little troubled by his opponent's refusal to give in, doesn't want to continue the beating. In the end, bloody but unbowed, Luke staggers away with a moral victory.
If you've seen the movie, you know Luke wasn't really after a moral kind of anything -- he was mostly just a stubborn cuss, albeit a charming one -- but there's still a pugnacious poetry to it all, a defiant reminder that no matter how small or lost any one of us might feel, or how steep the odds are stacked against a dream, there's a certain nobility in refusing to give up just because you're supposed to, and there's honor in following your path and being willing to own the consequences. Life is going to throw you your share of haymakers; there's no getting around that. You just don't quit.
What does any of this have to do with Matthew Ryan's brand-new album, 'Boxers'? It represents the burning spirit that hums through the LP -- the 14th studio album in a recording career that's made a proud tradition of venturing, torch aloft, into the darkness of the human heart and raging against the dying of the light. Both a retrenching and an evolution, it represents a distillation of everything that makes Ryan's music valuable while also finding him hitting a more confident stride as a songwriter, paring down each of the album's 11 tracks until all that remain are the most essential pieces of their stories.
If that last sentence makes 'Boxers' sound more like a book than an album, it's intentional; while it finds Ryan working in a spare sonic landscape that's supported almost entirely by the ragged sparks thrown by a small band of live players, it's also packed with visceral, evocative lyrics that tell the songs' tales with a craftsman's economy and grace. You might not know the people depicted in 'Boxers' personally, but you will understand their struggles.
Which is not to say that 'Boxers' is a downbeat album. Song titles such as 'An Anthem for the Broken,' 'Suffer No More' and 'God's Not Here Tonight' can't help but reflect a certain level of pain and disillusionment, but the songs themselves refuse to wallow; each of them urges the listener on, swollen with compassion. During one line of the 'Boxers' track, 'This One's For You Frankie,' Ryan sings, "We all fill our hearts with hopeful bombs," and that's a fairly apt description for each of these songs -- they're hopeful bombs that burst with the earnest belief that we're all in this together, that we all experience sadness and loss, that we're all going to have moments when we're all but broken. You just don't quit.
Referring to Ryan's music as "valuable" in an earlier paragraph was a very deliberate choice, because 'Boxers' was made as an impassioned rejoinder against the increasingly passive way music is consumed in the 21st century. It isn't background music; it isn't meant to be mindlessly streamed while the listener is focused on other things. It's here to remind us that a song can hit you in the heart as powerfully as a fist -- that another person's voice can speak to us even more clearly than our own. That sometimes, a few minutes and a few chords is all it takes to make you want to get up and fight for the right things, no matter what.