Ryan Sharp and his arresting, beautiful album In Search of A Unified Theory went legit last week with its arrival on iTunes. I think it’s the best album of the year (and yes, I’ve listened to the brilliant Neon Bible like, a million times). He’s gotten lots of well-deserved praise for his latest project, but somehow, the general tenor of the comments hasn’t sat quite right with me.
Alright, so here it is: I don’t like it when people describe an album or artist as ‘mature’, as has happened with Ryan. In my mind, this kind of appellation undermines their other, more gutty work. Moreover, I think it is a good thing that the prophets among us raise their voices and rail against the problems they see– and which we probably don’t — even if they’re a little long on problem and short on solution. Even more moreover, I don’t think that they should stop shouting until we get the message, such that their ‘maturity’ means our depravity. And anyway, my man Ryan isn’t some angry, punk kid– he’s a small-business owner, a husband and a father, an artist and a diligent and gifted musician. Are we supposed to say that he’s suddenly mature, just because he pays rent? Or because he’s softened his message or music a bit? Or because he reproduced?
So if by ‘maturity’ we mean ‘going along with the program’, ‘giving up the dream’, or ‘becoming more realistic’, I hope Ryan never grows up. He has the vision of a seer, the courage of a prophet, the heart of a friend, and the soul of an artist. At the same time, this newest album is more balanced, more measured, more thoughtful, more constructive, more, well, mature…
Yet no less powerful. Though his voice is velvety, lyrics like these cut us to the bone:
All those we need to see
and all those we need to hear
we tie their hands behind their backs
and look away.
And we tear the shirts right off their backs
then donate cash for all they lack
fancy ourselves philanthropists
save justice for another day
The lyrics, then, are pointed and pained, but also filled with self-examination and empathy. Songs of melancholy, of hopefulness, of longing for a better world , of hearing (in one of my favorite lines) “thunder in the desert”, and of learning to live in a kind of “calmed frustration” (the best line, methinks). The instrumentation is richer this time, with the guitar and banjo pushed to the side by piano, keyboards, strings, and even a glockenspiel, and with a wonderful group of collaborators playing the various instruments and mixing and engineering and arranging. An embodiment of the hope that resides in this album. All packaged with sweet photography and some of Holly‘s newest artwork.
So it’s a great album which will be even better this fall when Ryan and Holly pack up Paxton and do another Living Room tour of the US. The improvement will come as the heart behind this work is shown, and as food and drink and collaborative friendship are shared by those gathered. Because at the end of the day, this music is about real life and an inspiring, almost unreasonable hope of something better for this dystopian world.
* * * *
One of the reasons that I’ve waited so long to write about this album is that it seems so intensely personal to me, and I finally had to admit that I’d never do it justice with my words. Ryan supposedly cribbed some inspiration from a blog post (I’m still waiting for the royalty check…), and the result is the coda on this album. I’d say that the song doesn’t fit the rest of the album, but I can’t. I’d try to describe my debt to this beautiful, haunting music, but I can’t. I’d try to expand on its message, but I’m utterly unable. All I can say is that it embodies the exact ethos of last November, in words and ways that I couldn’t describe, then or now. Somehow, it is even more like my November 2006 than my November 2006 actually was. So my debt is deep, and indescribable.