Matthew Ryan’s “Hustle Up Starlings” (Review)

Matthew Ryan has released a number of consistently excellent albums since is wonderful debut album, May Day, in 1997. While all of his albums are worth seeking out, two decades into his recording career he is garnering growing attention for his two most recent albums, Boxers (2014) and his new album Hustle Up Starlings (2017), which may be the most Matthew-Ryan-sounding album of his career. And that is a great thing.

Matthew Ryan is a poet who rocks, with sounds ranging from the rage of punk to the rasp of a whisper. Music writers have compared him to a variety of artists, including Springsteen and Dylan, but comparisons fall away on the new album. Whether it is the maturing of an artist who recently had a crisis of considering giving up on a career — or inspiration from producer Brian Fallon from The Gaslight Anthem — or the maturing of an artist — or something else, Hustle Up Starlings brings together the best qualities of Matthew Ryan’s talent for music and lyrics.

A number of reviewers have raved about the album.  And Ryan himself has been giving a lot of interviews to promote the album. It is clear that this project is something he really believes in, and rightfully so.

Hustle Up Starlings

When I first heard the name of the album before its release, I wondered about the odd album title and what was a “hustle up starlings.” The title track, though, is a key to the album. It both reflects Ryan’s poetic instincts (who else would coin that expression?) and themes underlying the album.

The album is not about modern politics, but it captures the anguish of our current political climate and underlying angst. “Hustle Up Starlings,” one of the slower songs on the album, is on its surface about what most great songs are about, love (or lost love).  The singer looks back, remembering meeting a woman in a record store in 1991.

But “Hustle Up Starlings” is not so much a song about loss but a song about the fear of loss: “The things we love will one day disappear / First slow and then so quick.” And the title comes from the final lines of the song about seeking safety before something bad happens: ” Hustle up, starlings / The bats are coming / The night’s tuning up /And dusk is humming.”

Other Tracks

This theme of the fear of loss — or fighting against the fear of loss- runs through many songs on the album. The opening song, “(I Just Died) Like an Aviator” begins with the line, “Everything sucks,” but ends with a plea for survival (“Don’t die, don’t disappear/ I swear to God we need you here”).

We previously posted the official video for “(I Just Died) Like an Aviator,” but if you missed it then, it is worth checking out below.

The album’s themes may also be summed up by the closing lines of “Battle Born”: “Screaming hope in the land of the lost / Oh oh ’till the wheels come off.” That is what Ryan is doing here, “screaming hope,” fighting against the fear that one day the wheels will come off.

Of course, these themes underlie all our lives. We all know deep down that — like the aviator referenced in the opening track, none of us are getting out of here alive. But we have to keep hoping for something.  Maybe we all are trying to find that place mentioned in the closing song called “Where Summer Never Ends.”

Another highlight on the album is the song “Run Rabbit Run.” I have read some interviews with Ryan and have not seen any mention of a connection between this song and John Updike’s classic 1960 novel of middle-class angst, Rabbit Run. Maybe the similarity in the titles is a mere coincidence. But it would be a strange coincidence if Ryan was not thinking of the novel at all.  The song revisits themes from the novel, as Ryan sings about working long hours “just to get by.”

Where Ryan’s Rabbit differs from Updike’s Rabbit, though, is that the novel’s “running” cures nothing. But in Ryan’s song — echoing Springsteen’s epic running song “Born to Run” about a “death trap” in a town that “rips the bones from your back” — Ryan’s plea to run still holds out some hope.

It’s a trap,
Always pulling blades
From your back.

And it goes on and on and on;
Don’t get stuck, just run rabbit run.

Sometimes, like in “Bastard,” one can work to convince yourself that you are better off after a loss: “I’m feeling better / Now that we’re apart.”

On that song, and the other songs of the album, Ryan shows he is at the top of his game in not only writing lyrics but in the music. The music is memorable throughout the album and you’ll find yourself singing along and tapping your foot while the lyrics whistle past the graveyard of possible despair.

Ryan has noted that his goal with Hustle Up Starlings was to put together a cohesive album. He explained, “this is what we do though, 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. We believe in tomorrow, even when we’re not sure what tomorrow will be.”

“The Cracks In Your Broken Heart”

One of my favorite tracks on the album is “Close Your Eyes.” The song also works hard to provide the listener with some hope: “Now it won’t always be easy / But it won’t always be hard / Just listen to the cracks / In your broken heart.”

And maybe that is what Ryan is trying to say with this album:  We all need to remember that sometimes you can find some hope in the cracks of a broken heart.

I have introduced several people to the music of this native of Chester, Pennsylvania. I think now I may start encouraging the use of Hustle Up Starlings as a great place to start to delve into his wonderful catalog.

Photo by Scott Simontacchi. What is your favorite song on the new album? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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