Matthew Ryan grew up in Chester, Pennsylvania just south of Philly, and spent his teens in Newark, Delaware. In his early 20s, he moved to Nashville, where he was first signed to A&M Records, releasing May Day (1997) and East Autumn Grin (2000) before falling prey to the gigantic label mergers of the early aughts.
What followed was more or less an album a year by any and all means possible until 2012’s In The Dusk of Everything. After moving to Western Pennsylvania in 2011, Ryan quietly decided that he’d had enough, Dusk would be his last album. “Music had become too lonely,” he said. But soon after that declaration, a sudden friendship with the frontman from The Gaslight Anthem, Brian Fallon, reignited something in Ryan. Fallon invited him out on some tour dates, and after performing a version of Ryan’s “I Can’t Steal You” together in New York City, the two decided they’d like to work together one day. Fallon just wanted to play guitar, but Ryan suspected he’d found a producer.
Hustle Up Starlings was recorded last summer in Nashville at Doug Lancio’s place on the East Side. Ryan assembled the cast because they shared a common ethos and similar roots — The Clash, The Replacements, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, The Cure, The Jam. Brad Pemberton (Steve Earle, Ryan Adams) played drums and percussion; Brian Bequette played bass; Fallon played electric and acoustic guitars while helming production; Doug Lancio engineered and mixed while adding synth and additional guitars. Ryan sang and played guitar as well. David Henry (former cellist for Cowboy Junkies) added strings where needed.
Hustle Up Starlings is an album in the truest sense of the word — it’s a cohesive sonic and narrative expression with a beginning, middle and end. It was in a conversation with the great producer and songwriter Joe Henry that Ryan realized once again the importance of committing to the fullness of experience that an album offers.
“It’s an intimate story I’m telling here. These songs are personal, but if I’m lucky and I’ve done my job, they become universal. The story I’m living and writing about is happening in the context of this world we’re all observing and feeling right now, a world that feels like it might catch fire with all its uncertainty and friction, the ugly politics and rising impulses.”
Ryan explains further, “You see, this is what we do. Even when the world feels like it’s about to burn down, we keep leaning for tomorrow in our own lives and stories and families. It’s all hope and perseverance. We get up and we go to work.”
On Hustle Up Starlings, we find an artist who has shifted into some higher gear and come into full fruition. Each song and performance in this collection leans on perseverance like a car leans into a hard curve — the thrill of “(I Just Died) Like An Aviator,” the inspired grit of “Battle Born,” the unguarded intimacies of “Maybe I’ll Disappear,” the jilted humor and meanness of “Bastard.”
There’s romance and doubt, there’s memory informing the phantoms of the future, there’s work and hope-tinged despair. There are moments that arrive and feel like instant classics. The title track, “Hustle Up Starlings,” comes in like an ambient Rolling Stones tune and unfolds in a filmic, breathtakingly honest way. Each detail glows as the story builds upon itself, cool and warm, incisive. The entire album works like this, each song into the next, moment after moment. It doesn’t let up.