Music

Ryan Downey plays by his own rules on Running, a completely compelling debut

Ryan Downey has one hell of a voice on him. The obvious comparisons, of which I’m sure he will grow increasingly tired of, are Leonard Cohen, Bill Callahan and Nick Cave doing his balladry routine.

It is a lovely, deep and resonant instrument that is capable of a deceptively wide range; emotionally and musically speaking. Running is his immaculately crafted debut album and it provides the perfect introduction to an artist that has been gathering momentum for some time now.

That said, as far as introductions go, Running isn’t particularly straightforward.

ryan downey running album

Ryan Downey’s ability to bend the rules is the wellspring of his character, and Running sees that finesse stretched to its outer limits.

Downey is an artist that is full of contradictions, and he rarely does what you think he will. A song that at first seems to be a heart-on-sleeve devotional quickly changes gear with a wry phrase. A mournful meditation on loneliness transforms into something nourishing and euphoric.

When these disparate elements rub up against each other the results are often fascinating and compelling. In other places they obstruct each other, making it difficult to tell exactly what Downey is trying to achieve.

At times these changes of direction and emotional tone come across as an attempt to circumvent tired cliches, which is really only necessary because he flirts with them in the first place.

On the one hand it brings a chameleonic character to his identity as an artist that is reminiscent of David Bowie or Bob Dylan; difficult to pin down but all the more intriguing for it. Conversely though, it paints him as a bit of a charlatan, preferring to say what is unexpected rather than what is true.

How one feels about this will largely depend on their own personal preferences and is hugely subjective. Descriptors like ‘honesty’ and ‘sincerity’ have long been loaded terms, particularly within the realms of this sort of singer-songwriter music. The way that Downey is willing to bend them separates him from the pack. The best songs on the album, such as 1+1, Running and The End, demonstrate this and bring a fresh and unique character to the record.

It should also be noted that the production of Running is absolutely gorgeous and one of the album’s greatest strengths. Fellow Melbournian Steve Hassett, of Luluc fame, has achieved a brilliant balance between the stoicism the songs suggest and sonic layers that provide atmosphere and much needed musical variation.

Each gently plucked string is given adequate space to ring out, the soft synth sounds adding warmth and melody. It is a measured approach that demonstrates a keen understanding of the artist. In short, it elevates the album, and could well elevate the demand for Hassett as a producer too.

Ultimately, Running is an accomplished and assured debut album. It has an unusual character, at turns genuinely affecting and perplexing, that is supported greatly by a stunning vocal performance. The accompanying music is sophisticated and lush in a way that makes it a pleasure to listen to. However, the generally languid pacing, and the odd uneven song, means that it probably won’t appeal to everyone.

But look, I really don’t think that’s going to bother Downey one bit. If there is one overarching theme to Running it’s that Downey is playing by his own rules; and to me that’s the sign of someone worth watching.

 

Running is out now on Barely Dressed/Remote Control Records. 

 

Alastair Cairns is the singer/songwriter/troubadour of Sydney rock act Wells. He is definitely qualified for this position. He resides over here.