Scott Ryan – Mercy Killings

Scott Ryan - Mercy Killings

Los Angeles-based songwriter Scott Ryan may only have a small body of work to his name, but it’s nonetheless hard to dispute his panache as a musical alchemist. When his Tree Man EP dropped in the summer of 2009, Ryan achieved that remarkable feat – increasingly rare in today’s “more is more” musical landscape – of taking a prototype rock band blueprint and rendering it malleable to a point that both gritty catharsis and tender meditations felt completely organic.

2 years have passed since Tree Man first captivated listeners with its unexpected forays into snarling blues rock and recondite chamber pop, and it’s been nearly twice that long since Ryan’s debut LP, The Coldest Room in the House, heralded his arrival. If his newly released Mercy Killings record is any indication though, the lengthy interval in between albums has served Ryan well, allowing him to expound on his undeniably dexterous treatments of disparate idioms. His sophomore record is an expansive 10-song cycle unified by personal reflection on faith and love, confident in its explorations of new territories, yet never cavalier.

While there’s no mistaking that Mercy Killings boasts a meatier sound than Ryan’s previous outings, things never feel ostentatious or bloated – string arrangements, horn riffs, and synthesizers are judiciously applied throughout. If there is a prevailing sound on the hour-long disc however, it’s one that should be familiar to fans of Death Cab for Cutie, where sparking ripples of gently distorted electric guitar and pristine tenor vocals are frequently fused to melancholy keyboard timbres and bristling bass lines. Such is the case with opening track “Autumn Hymn,” a midtempo rock tune that conveys a tentative atmosphere despite propulsive crescendos and mildly agitated guitar hooks. Ryan’s lyrics even display a literary flare à la Ben Gibbard, particularly with lines like, “As we tumbled down the stony staircase / memories and dandelions twirled before our eyes / and the clocks we swallowed ticked internally / I swore once not to lose you / but each moment is such a fickle fiend.”

Other songs that follow a similarly poignant or bittersweet milieu include the danceable “You’ll Never Change Your Mind” with its “all things shall pass” mantra, and the atmospheric folk swoon of “St. Lucille.” In the latter, we find one instance of the religious imagery that Ryan employs throughout the album to examine existential questions of the afterlife: “I swear the saints could never hear me singing / pray for us sinners / now and hereafter.”

Elsewhere, the album comes together like a pastiche, weaving together psychedelic blues, sunshine-dappled pop, and even a dash of New Romanticism. Most bands have the obligatory ballad or acoustic slowburner to break up their routine, but every left turn made by Ryan feels instinctive and expedient – even the desperado flavored chaos of “Drown Stir Drown,” which matches barroom imagery (“Let’s drink our whiskey neat and fall in love before / there’s nothing left to laugh about anymore”) with tremolo-affected guitar and horn calls.

“Blank Maps” begins by copping what sounds like the main riff from the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” before morphing into an alt-country rambler that would not have been out of place on an early Counting Crows record. Lead single “Western Anxiety” is unexpectedly ebullient, touting a hip-shaking bass line and Maroon 5 swagger that can’t be held down in spite of the distressed lyrics (“I wandered in for a season / squandered every good reason to leave / while the water froze ’round my submarine”).

Yet for all of his prowess with musical parlances, there’s no denying that Scott Ryan is most in his element with just an acoustic guitar and a little bit of reverb behind him. Tunes like “Variations,” the aforementioned “St. Lucille,” and closer “VFW” form a hypnotic trifecta of exigent soul searching, the last of which also finds Ryan singing, “I pray I’m not alone,” with palpable vulnerability.

Mercy Killings is a towering achievement of a record, but there’s no doubt some will be turned off by its stubborn refusal to follow a clear trajectory.  That’d be a fair criticism if Scott Ryan didn’t pull off each of his ideas with the aplomb of someone twice his age, but he’s that rare burgeoning songwriter who seems to have found that congenital understanding of how to temper innovation with prudence.  Plus, you don’t find rookies who write words like these, the final observations from “VFW”: “Those who call themselves sinners / those that dine with the saints / those who’ve grown fat from years of great yield / those that pray for the crumbs from their plates / I can see them seated together / I can see them at the end of time.”