Westland, Michigan – the year is 2013. Speak Low If You Speak Love, the musical moniker for Ryan Scott Graham, has just started accumulating some local attention. Stranded in a Metro Detroit coffee shop scene, Graham scrounged up all the pennies he could to self-release his debut album, Everything but What You Need, following the release of several EPs throughout the years. Largely a collection of songs Graham had written years prior, the 10-song effort made a small splash in the midwest, but he was reaching for a bit more. Fast forward to 2015, Speak Low had been picked up by Pure Noise Records. Everything but What You Need would later be given a visual makeover, fresh remastering, and four bonus tracks to boot — all for its re-release. The record gained a small cult following, with subsequent runs of shows to support the album for years to follow. Speaking honestly, this record truly changed my life. With soaring choruses of unrequited and lost love, doubt and uncertainty, there was something for every listener. The catchiness of this debut was undeniable. The most valuable asset this album possesses is its staying factor. The songs have stuck with me for nearly five years now, where my excitement for the forthcoming release only grew with each day.
It’s now 2018 and we have arrived at Graham’s musical opus, Nearsighted: an album that his fans believed would never be finished. The amount of time between records is definitely evident in the music itself. Graham, now 27 years old, has matured — and his songs have too — they’re smarter. The sleek, yet raw production glossed over a 12-song track listing is coated with influence from producer Aaron Marsh — best known for fronting indie-pop darlings Copeland. The songs are filled new territory for Graham, who is largely joined by longtime Speak Low collaborator and percussionist, Drew Stoutenburg. The songs are different than anything Graham has ever done.
The first track, “Have I Changed?” features themes of uncertainty and seemingly falling out of religion. Graham questions his legitimacy in the opening line: “I’m a fraud, between the pews on a Sunday morning.” The song concludes with the lyric, “…I cannot put my thumb on when I went so numb.” Arguably the best production on the whole record, the panned vocals and bass grooves of “Enough” are incredibly infectious. Throughout the record, drummer Drew Stoutenburg truly shines — “Enough” being one of his first of many moments of glory. The most attractive thing about “Enough” is that it cements a new era of Speak Low – sonically and lyrically. “Ever Yours” and “Your Love It Runs” both flow uniquely into each other, the latter featuring collaborator Eric Nicolau. “Your Love It Runs” sounds like it could be featured on a Death Cab For Cutie album — easily.
The most valuable aspect of Graham’s songwriting prowess is his ability to tell a complete story in every track. “Safety Net” is the most interesting cut on Nearsighted, featuring entirely electronic percussion and Lakeland, FL vocalist Hannah Dobson (Ayerlyn). Producer Aaron Marsh’s influence bleeds through this cut. Dobson haunts the track, “You look over, I fell deeper, when I woke to you still sleeping. Oh, my lover, when you leave here we could figure out the details.” The song is followed with the most emotional track on the record, “Hatsuyume.” The song dives into having a dream of a close friend committing suicide in a dream and questioning why Graham can’t erase this vivid dream. “She killed herself in a dream I had, I knew things had decayed, but I did not know how bad.”
My favorite stretch on Nearsighted begins with “Circle Spinning,” with a bassline that rivals “Enough.” Definitely the poppiest cut on the record, this song endured the most transformation between its beginning stages and finalization. The care that went into “Cannot Have It All” is simply immaculate, which is my favorite song on this release. The subtle buildup of horns near the end of the song leave the listener with a warm blanket of sound, surrounded by Graham’s crooning, “I let you in, but you cannot have it all. I lose control if I get too vulnerable.” Drummer Drew Stoutenburg’s most impressive effort on the whole record is featured on the track “Mystery’s Gone.” Stoutenburg churns out emotion in the percussion for this one, complimenting Graham’s sultry guitar tone in a way nobody else could. The album closer “Swell” closes the book on this musical journey, the longest track in Speak Low’s catalog — yet it doesn’t feel lengthy.
Every track on Nearsighted sounds like it belongs on the album — a very complete body of work. You can pick out the layers of each song, each one crafted to stand on its own. This project is truly one of a kind. The only confusing aspect of this album is that it sits on Pure Noise Records, a primarily pop-punk powerhouse — Nearsighted feels like a release that could have easily come from a major such as Atlantic or Columbia, or indie boomers Sub-Pop. Here’s to hoping Nearsighted attracts new listeners and leads Graham to new heights. I’m personally very excited to spin this record for years to come and am in love with what Graham and co. have created. Listen to Nearsighted, it’s a breath of fresh air — and very, very good.