Ryan Beatty, a former Disney kid who abandoned the Disney thing to be gay and make his own music (W), came out with his third album, Calico, in April. He’s always had a talent for pop, taking inspiration from other artists and putting his own spin on it. Dreaming of David, his sophomore album, with both catchy hooks and ethereal production, felt like equal parts Frank Ocean, James Blake, and Beatty himself.

On Calico, he keeps the production relatively consistent, settling on something like acoustic Frank Ocean, rich but stripped down. The tracks alternate between spare, simple instrumentals—plucky guitar and soft piano—and the full-space, blown out strings/synths on choruses and outtros. It’s very pretty, carefully considered and crafted, but it’s ultimately just a vehicle. Ryan Beatty knows that the real focus of this album, the thing that makes you really listen and remember and forward the spotify link to all your friends, the thing that makes this album his in a way that perhaps his previous ones aren’t, are the words.

There are no fancy words or overladen metaphors on Calico. Beatty avoids conventional song structures—the flow of the songs is shaped by what feels natural and intuitive. The music finds home in its simplicity and its observation. When I listen to Calico, I feel as if I am experiencing poetry in sound.

For example-on Cinnamon Bread, my personal favorite, Ryan Beatty has created a love song so nuanced in its portrayal of love that it doesn’t even feel like a love song. Gone is the plaintive yearning of his earlier music (“God is real, I was sleeping in his bed last night”, “Love me to death or don’t give me anything”), which speak more to violent promise of first love than the actual love itself. We’re encountering an older, more fragile Ryan,but one who’s a little wiser, too, a guy who’s had his heart broken a few times and broken a few hearts of his own.

Infinite jest and cinnamon bread, why don’t you make yourself at home?” he begins, and the imagery is so specific and the pairing even more so. It immediately conjures up an image of some studio apartment on the outskirts of LA, laundry on the floor and the guy you love as much as you despise lying on your couch. And then the next line arrives, with no pause in the delivery: “When you open up, you close me in and cut me to the bone.” Within two lines, he’s a created such a vivid portrait of a relationship, of a feeling that’s deeply painful but subtler than heartbreak.

The song is largely unstructured, but Ryan Beatty earmarks different passages with the refrain “Now you’ve got nothing to say” (or variants thereof). This line is used after periods in which the song builds up momentum—the subtle flow created by run-on sentences in the first verse or the full-on crescendos later in the song (“Cause all the men you’ve loved, the women you’ve loved”… a line I am contractually obligated to adore because bisexuality). It gives the music a sense of emotional variance, rise and fall. The lyrical and melodic equivalent of holding in a breath for as long as you can and finally letting it go. And each time he uses the refrain, it appears in a slightly different form, and means an entirely different thing. “I was a good guy, til you came over that day… now I got nothing to say,” he sings. He omits his actual misdeeds, telling us he’s “got nothing to say”, and it’s such a cool contradiction–this is a record that appears to bare the soul, where he has everything to say, but he’s also admitting that there are things even he won’t say out loud, that are best left unsaid.

In the last two lines, the refrain becomes: “They’ve all got something to say… it couldn’t keep me away.” Here is full-blown acknowledgement of his own complicity in whatever-this-is, that somewhere deep down, he knows what he’s getting into. It’s a place we’ve all been and where most of us will end up again, because loving a pathological liar is practically a rite of passage in your early twenties.

Cinnamon Bread is Ryan Beatty being honest about love. He stays away from grand declarations and complicated syllables, is honest about even is own inability to be honest. He’s writing in a reality where there are no good guys or bad guys, just selfish people and weak people and ones that are a little bit less so, and these people come into contact with each other in a way that approaches sheer randomness. Gas particles bouncing around the chamber.

i am pretending to understand science

This newfound ‘live and let-live attitude’—which (crucially) feels like wisdom rather than apathy–goes for more than just romantic love. On Andromeda, Ryan Beatty sings, “If the family is happy, let ‘em laugh, let ‘em have their fun.” “My sister’s raising a baby, in the house where my mother grew up.” (Side note: this is straight out of Sufjan’s textbook: “My brother had a daughter, the beauty that she brings, illumination.”) This more compassionate lens towards others is also applied to himself: “What stops me from spending it all?” he sings, guitar briefly suspended in favor of flooding instrumentals, “Spinning out Andromeda, watching Jupiter come back around again.” Ryan Beatty doesn’t know why we’re all here either, what we’re doing, why we work and live and die each day. He doesn’t know and he meets that not knowing without angst or anxiety, but total acceptance. It’s beautiful. The scope of the song feels immense, and worthy of its name. (Also, the visuals in the lyrics are fantastic: a hot desert night, a wide open sky. I don’t know anything about Arizona, but this song makes me wish I did.)

White Teeth, opens with: “I’m not your brother, I can’t take care of you, I purchase furniture in place of you.” This is the kind of opening line people kill to write. The words are simple, but placed in an order that’s so unexpected and brutally honest. The line is dense—it reveals more information than the words themselves, more information than perhaps the writer even intended it to. ‘I’m not your brother, I can’t take care of you’ implies dependence, suffocation, and the longing for a family. As someone who has a literal brother, and whose brother can’t or won’t take care of me either, it’s devastating. The image of purchasing furniture “in place” of someone, of populating a space where a person used to live and breathe with inanimate objects—it’s like, there’s the attempt to fill a void, while knowing that attempt is ultimately futile. And there’s also the feeling of starting over, of making one’s own home when you can’t find it in another person. All that, in first twenty seconds of the song.

On White Teeth, nostalgia and letting go aren’t contradictory emotions. They coexist, are sometimes interchangeable and always beautiful. “If I could stretch these hours into a lifetime, I would stretch these arms and do it at the right time, I would.” “Some left but the right ones stayed… a good end to a Saturday.” The simile from which the song takes its name: “Like white teeth to a red wine stain,” is a quiet image. It’s commonplace, everyday, but also unexpected, and Ryan Beatty gives it such color and emotion. Everything feels saturated with meaning.

Bruises Off The Peach
The song’s main hook: “I cut all the bruises off the peach, not as beautiful but still as sweet.” This is the kind of metaphor you spend years trying to think of. It takes a thousand drafts in a journal or more likely one drunken moment of inspiration in your notes app. “What did it ever have to do with me?” He sings these lines in a stretched out, languid manner, like he’s got all the time in the world, and then immediately after he cuts in: “Staring at the ceiling now, a million moments pass, love will always last, love will always hold me down.” And here the vocals are fast-paced with reverb. He’s matching the delivery to the substance of lyrics itself, switching between a slow pondering and total urgency, time passing faster than you ever wanted it to and love fixing you into place amidst all that time. There’s big changes in tone that somehow don’t feel jarring, and it’s just amazing to me how intentionally the song was thought out and made.

music video went wild places but i respect it

Calico is filled with lyrics like the ones I’ve described above, clever and concise and improbable lyrics that are so, so rich in how much they manage to capture and suggest. There are so many great run-on lyrics, too, either in terms of the sentence itself or the meanings branching off of each other–I’m thinking of Bright Red, where he starts with “No cry, no pain,” and goes to, “All these satellites litter the sky, not even we can see past these material things, not even when it’s free” and ends with “When I hold my baby in my arms, I count on God to wake us up by sunrise” and transitions between each of these lines with perfect seamlessness, as if they were the natural progression of things. He does stream of consciousness, but smarter–it’s like if you wrote down your thoughts but you had the best thoughts, the thoughts that other people wished they had.

Of course, the review wouldn’t be complete unless I talked about Ribbons, the first track of the album and its lead single. It’s probably the best track on the album, and its lyrics are poetry. Whatever I have to say about it would be totally reductive, even more reductive than writing about music already is. The only lyric I have to put here, because it’s the kind of line I’d die to write, and it makes me feel understood in ways I’d never imagine any man could:

“It’s brave to be nothing to no one at all.”

I’ve been listening to Ryan Beatty since I was in high school. When I was eighteen, I listened to Backseat with my back lying on someone’s bedroom floor, just like he said, and I knew we had the same definition of love. Now I’m twenty-two and I‘ve discovered what it means to be nothing to no one at all, how freedom and loneliness are different but fundamentally connected, and how both cost more than I ever could have imagined. It’s beautiful to watch an artist come into his own, and to create a record that is nothing short of poetry. It’s even more beautiful to have the privilege of growing alongside him.