Sunday, October 30, 2011

Lost Highway is a Bitch, or, Things That Suck Kind of Really Piss Me Off

I'll admit that Rock N Roll was not a work of staggering genius, but then again it was never meant to be. For Ryan Adams, Rock N Roll was a means to an end, meant to do little more than get record store shelves stocked with Love is Hell, two ep's that kind of are works of staggering genius. If you're a Ryan Adams fan, I assume you're as grateful for the release of Love is Hell, pts. 1 and 2 as I am, and because the release of the latter was entirely due to the recording of the former, I would also think that you would be at least a little grateful for Rock N Roll as well, but I would be wrong. In fact, I think the response to Rock N Roll may be solely responsible for derailing Ryan Adams' career, and if I'm being honest, that kind of pisses me off. Actually, it kind of pisses me off a lot, because there's absolutely no reason it should have.

Like I said, I don't suffer from any delusions about Rock N Roll, I'm more than aware of what it is: it's not the best thing Ryan Adams has ever released, it's not one of the best things Ryan Adams has ever released, it's not even the best thing that Ryan Adams released in 2003, but it's good. Outside of its intrinsic ties to Love is Hell, outside of the incredible pressure from the label and whirlwind creation of the record, Rock N' Roll is a good record.

It's 14 songs, not a single one bad, with at least a handful of quite good ones, and maybe even a few (or at least one) of the best he's ever written. "So Alive" is easily the closest thing to a perfect single that Adams has ever recorded. It's amazingly catchy, amazingly rocking, and if you ask me, sort of beautiful in a weird, not-quite-able-to-put-my-finger-on-it way. It isn't just one of the best singles of 2003, but probably one of the best of the last decade, maybe even of the last few.

"So Alive" aside, there are still a lot of great songs on Rock N' Roll."This Is It", "Luminol", "Do Miss America", "She's Lost Total Control", "Wish You Were Here", and the first appearance of "Anybody Wanna Take Me Home?", these songs are all reasons to appreciate this album, or at least tolerate it, but mention Rock N Roll to the average Ryan Adams fan you'd think you'd dropped a particularly potent fart in a small, hot, crowded room. The reaction's almost visceral. People really don't like this album at all, and again, that kind of really pisses me off.

But I'm not angry that people don't like this album. I don't expect you to think it's as good as I do. If you're okay with being wrong, I'm okay with it too. Like it, don't like, I don't care one way or the other. What bothers me is that after the release of Rock N Roll, fans and critics expected, and I think almost wanted, Ryan Adams to fail. Before Rock N Roll, Adams was seen as the next great American songwriter. After Rock N Roll, Ryan Adams became just some guy who recorded a few pretty good records.

Before Rock N Roll, fans rushed out to buy the "new" Ryan Adams album because they couldn't wait to hear it. After Rock N Roll, fans waited to hear the "new" Ryan Adams album before they even entertained the idea of buying it. Fans bought Rock N Roll and they still bought all of the records that followed, but since 2003, they've approached every record with skepticism. Even though fans didn't feel right about bailing on him entirely, they didn't feel right about believing in him anymore either. Every album from Cold Roses on has been greeted with this sort of crossed-arm, prove-it-to-me cynicism. Fans are always willing to concede that the "latest" Ryan Adams album is good, whatever that album may be, but they never can imagine the follow-up will be worth its weight in shit.

Before Rock N Roll, critics wouldn't completely ignore the occasional inconsistency or slight misstep he made, but they'd write it off, gloss over it, explain it away, even embrace it because he was a critical darling and it proved he was in fact a man and not some musical demigod. The periodic odd choice made him human and all the more endearing. They saw Adams' records as flawed but brilliant, but after Rock N Roll came out, his albums suddenly became brilliant but flawed. The record could be genius, but rather than talking about the countless things that made it so good, reviews seem to focus on the one or two things that weren't. The overall reviews are still good. They're always 4 out of 5 stars or 7.5 out of 10, but when you read what the critic has to say about the record, the tone always feels like, "Okay, he managed to pull this one off and bought himself a little more time in the public eye, but the next one's bound to be awful." After Rock N Roll, reviews started to sound like a stay of execution..."We're letting him live a little longer." It's almost like they're amazed it's good.

And that sucks. It sucks because Ryan Adams is in fact probably the next great American songwriter. It sucks because in a world of music rife with fly-by-nights-but-gone-by-mornings, of pans and the flashes that occur in them, of gimmicks and gross inadequacy, Ryan Adams has consistently put out quality records. Sometimes they're unbelievable, sometimes they're just good, but they're always worthwhile. They're always better than 99% of anything else that's come out over the last decade and a half, but they're always under-appreciated. And that just sucks, and things that suck kind of piss me off a lot. But I can't begrudge the fans or blame the critics because this is all Lost Highway's fault.

Lost Highway fucked Ryan Adams. Really, from the get-go they fucked this guy: agreed to Adams' plans for Gold as a double album at a single disc price, and then at the last minute cut the last five songs and trimmed it down to a single disc and releasing it in its entirety as a "special, limited edition", with an inflated price-tag, indulged him with the recording of 3 albums over the course of 2002, and then destroyed the integrity of the work by dismantling the records and cut-and-pasting them together for Demolition. They repeatedly fucked him over and he wasn't too happy about it.

He had said that "to make Gold as a compromise only to have to watch those records get broken up for Demolition was heartbreaking." So when, after meticulously crafting it for a year, he presented Lost Highway with Love is Hell, a work that he said was the album he'd been trying to make his entire life, and they rejected it as not commercial enough, he was demoralized. Ryan Adams became bound and determined to get this music out there.Some thing he made a deal with the Devil, others think he's the Devil himself, but really, he just did what he had to do to avoid once again being marginalized by his label.

Rock N Roll was not some record he painstakingly worked on. It's an album that he wrote, recorded, and finished in only two weeks. Rock N Roll was essentially ransom for Love is Hell. He couldn't let them shelve it like they did 48 Hours, The Suicide Handbook and Ryan Adams and The Pinkhearts. He couldn't simply give in to the label, so instead he compromised. He gave them their marketable album in the form of Rock N Roll with the ultimatum that they only got it if they released Love is Hell too. And God bless him for that because I'm still livid that the possibility of my needle ever touching a record with "Walls" or "Angelina" on it is slim to none, a world without Love is Hell is a world that's just too weird to really want to be a part of. Sadly enough though, it was this double-barreled release that caused things to get ugly for Ryan Adams, and like I've already stated, it was all Lost Highway's fault.

Lost Highway may have agreed to release Love is Hell, but like so many times before, they fucked Ryan Adams, but this time it was the royal screw. By breaking up Love is Hell into two parts, they sent a message to fans, sure, but more importantly to Adams. They wanted to show Ryan Adams that he didn't concede by making Rock N Roll, but that they did by throwing him a bone and releasing Love is Hell. They wanted to make sure that everyone knew that Love is Hell was unimportant. Rock N' Roll was the main course, Love is Hell was a side dish. Rock N Roll was first class and Love is Hell was coach. Rock N Roll was the story, Love is Hell was a footnote.

They wanted to ensure that the highly promoted Rock N Roll would out sell the promotionless Love is Hell. They wanted Rock N Roll to have greater impact on the critics than Love is Hell. They wanted to show Ryan Adams that Rock N Roll was right and Love is Hell was wrong. They wanted to turn Ryan Adams into a multi-platinum selling superstar, but all they did was kind of fuck everything up for everyone, including themselves.

First off, Rock N Roll is easily Ryan Adams most niche album, and for a kind of stylistic chameleon, that's saying a lot. Lost Highway should have realized that Adams wasn't going to ever be an artist beholden to a specific style. Even if Rock N Roll had gone on to sell 3 million copies, Ryan Adams was never going to say, "Oh, hey, this album sold a lot so I should just do that over and over again". Because of how stylistically isolated it was from the rest of his catalog, anyone who jumped on the Ryan Adams train because of Rock N Roll would have immediately hopped off the second they heard Cold Roses. They were never going to create new Ryan Adams fans with Rock N Roll, they were at best going to make fans of one album who would be gone the second he released something new.

Meanwhile, all fans had wanted for years was for Ryan Adams to up the ante on Heartbreaker, the very thing that Love is Hell did. It was a return to the confessional singer/songwriter approach of Heartbreaker, but was much darker and moodier. Love is Hell should have satiated the hunger for his established, loyal fans, but it didn't.

Critics on the hand were looking for validation. For years, critics had praised Adams and wanted him to finally deliver the album that would without a doubt make them feel like their accolades weren't all in vain. Love is Hell should have provided the piece of mind, but once again, it didn't.

Love is Hell couldn't accomplish either of these feats because first, broken up into two parts, Love is Hell's impact was diluted. Regardless of how good the two ep's were, without the material presented in its envisioned and proper long-play format, the context was wrong, the pacing was off. The cohesion of the songs is one of it's greatest strengths, but with Love is Hell rendered asunder, there was no unity. In two ep's, you're only getting a part of the whole, and the whole is always going to be more affecting than a fraction of it. Second, having part 1 simultaneously released with Rock N Roll which was presented as a whole, it gave the listener the impression that Adams saw Love is Hell as a "less-than" piece, infuriating everyone and poisoning their minds against Ryan Adams, seeing him as a man who was just out to make a buck, leaving them unable to do anything but question every move Adams would make for what has so far been the remainder of his career.

But had Lost Highway let Adams win just this one, I think everything would have been different. Had Love is Hell been released as the follow-up to Gold (Demolition is a compilation album, and since compilations are not proper records, I don't consider Demolition to be Gold's follow-up.), and waited 10 months or a year to release Rock N Roll, I think Love is Hell would have reinforced and solidified fans and critics established opinions of Ryan Adams, so when Rock N Roll finally did surface, the record would have been seen as nothing more than the strange whim of an erratic genius and thus, would have been accepted by critics and fans, while still bringing those new customers into the fold.

It wouldn't have gained any more longterm fans for Adams or sold more records than it did, but Adams stature in the collective consciousness wouldn't have been effected; it may have even seemed more stalwart. Instead, Rock N Roll gave people the impression that Ryan Adams was just clamoring for the brass ring, a sycophant whose ultimate goal was to do nothing more than to fatten his coin purse. Lost Highway's ridiculous desires were projected onto Ryan Adams, giving him a false reputation he still hasn't been able to shake, and that's unfair, and disparity sucks, and things that suck kind of piss me off a lot.

Lost Highway ruined things and they know it. I don't think it's coincidence that neither of these albums have been in print on vinyl for almost a decade even though everything else Ryan Adams ever released on Lost highway is and these 2 records fetch serious coin on eBay. I don't think it's coincidence that, for the celebration of Lost Highway's 10th anniversary as a label, they announced they would finally reissue these albums only to mysteriously pull them from the roster of special edition vinyl releases days after Ryan Adams announced the release date of his first record of new material, Ashes & Fire, on his own label, Pax-Am, which fell smack-dab in the middle of the two.

Lost Highway knows they fucked things up, they just don't want us to know they know it. They limited Ryan Adams as an artist before Rock N Roll, and unfairly condemned him as a philistine because of Rock N Roll, and wrote him off after Rock n Roll. Lost Highway bungled his career, fundamentally tarnishing his reputation as an artist and leaving fans with a bad taste in their mouth that still lingers, all for the sake of making a buck. And the worst of it all is that Rock N Roll is still a pretty good record, it was ill-conceived, sure, and it was released at the worst possible time in the worst possible way under the worst possible circumstances, but it's still a pretty good album. But because of all of the bullshit, no one will ever be able to objectively listen to it, so no one will ever really know that. And you know, that sucks, and things that suck kind of really piss me off.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


It starts with a sigh; I'm talking about "Call Me on Your Way Back Home", the sixth song on Ryan Adams' first solo album. The sigh only lasts a second, and if the volumes too low your speakers are shitty it's not even audible, but it might just be my favorite moment in music.

It's funny I really, that my favorite moment in music should have nothing to do with music at all, yet still, it is my favorite moment, because in that single second, without singing a word a playing a note, Ryan Adams manages to expose the soul, the very essence of Heartbreaker. There's longing in that sigh, and loneliness and desperation and exhaustion and hope. And it's all amazing.

Maybe this shouldn't seem like that big of a deal, but if you know me you know that I believe there are very few artists, maybe none, who can truly compare to Ryan Adams. True, there are other bands and artists I love as much as Ryan Adams, but not for the same reasons, and the reasons why I love Ryan Adams are the reasons why I love music so much, so for me it is a big deal. It's a real big deal.

I hear that sigh, and I get this vision in my head: Ryan Adams, sitting the booth alone, guitar in hand, harmonica strapped around his neck, rocks glass filled with whiskey or bourbon or something like that, with a finger of the booze left in the glass and the ice cubes nearly melted down to nothing, but that's alright because he finished off his beer chaser with the last drink. His cigarette's burning in the ashtray on the table next to him, probably something full-flavored, maybe a Marlboro because for whatever reason the seem more "Southern" to me than Camels and he hadn't been out of the South long enough yet to shake off its' dirt to become urbane and smoke Nat Sherman's or even American Spirits. He's trying the steel up his nerve, not to do the song well but just to get through it without falling apart. The tape's rolling, it has been for 30 seconds, he knows because Ethan Johns told him when he hit record. He grabs his glass of whiskey, but puts it back down almost instantly; it's not going to help him now, maybe after the song's done he'll drink it...definitely after the song's done he'll drink it, but not now, not now. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breathe, and then let's out that sigh, the very one that's so important to me, and he starts playing.

At least some of these things are fiction, probably most of the things didn't happen, most likely all them are pure fantasy, but what I want to have happened and what actually happened are of little consequence, because in the end, that sigh is real, and that sigh says everything that Ryan Adams really needed to say on Heartbreaker.

That sigh, like the record's title, tells you all you need to know without ever listening to the music. It's sort of funny really, for a long time I assumed Heartbreaker was in reference to Adams (and there are reports that the album's title was actually just arbitrarily chosen), but the more I've listened to this record, the more I've come to realize that, arbitrary or not, the title couldn't be more apropos. With the exception of two or three songs (and even those are maybe debatable), these songs are heartbreaking. "Oh My Sweet Carolina", "To Be the One", "Come Pick Me Up", "Sweet Lil' Gal (23rd and 3rd)", "Why Do They Leave?", "Don't Ask for the Water", the aforementioned "Call Me on Your Way Back Home"; they're all songs about emptiness at its most admirable. For lack of a more articulate way of putting it, these songs are all so sad, and they make me sad when I listen to them, but that's always been a good thing because they're also so good that it makes feeling sad feel good. But in 2011, there's a new sadness, a deeper, more real sadness that goes along with listening to this record too.

Having been a little RA obsessed for the last decade, I've devoured and internalized all of the records and I've loved every minute of it. Ryan Adams has constantly shape-shifted and reinvented himself. He's grown as an artist, but over the course of a near decade of dealing with Lost Highway, expectant critics and fickle fans, he also grew jaded. It was hard to hear it as it was happening, the same way it's hard to notice the ways people change over time when you see them everyday. You don't really notice greying hair or slimming bellies or fattening bellies or wrinkling faces when you see someone every day. But when there's even a reasonably brief moment of separation, the reunion that follows can be a rude awakening.

And I've spent a decade without going all that long without listening to Ryan Adams. For the first 3 years after I heard Heartbreaker, I don't think I went more than a day without listening to a Ryan Adams album. There was a 4 year period where, even if I went a few days or even a week without listening to one of his records, I still listened to "So Alive" every day, because it is still one of the most perfect Rock songs of all time. From the second I listened to Heartbreaker, I've loved Ryan Adams' music and haven't really been able to separate myself from it. Even when I'm on a particularly strong jag with someone else, a Ryan Adams album still finds its way into the rotation. I haven't spent a whole lot of time without him. The result of that was being able to see the continuity throughout his catalog but not differences.

The fact that Ryan Adams was getting tired and growing cynical with music never occurred to me. I didn't notice what was happening. I was too involved, I couldn't see the forest for the trees. All I knew was Ryan Adams was making records and I loved each and every one of them...nothing else mattered. And still, I guess nothing else actually matters, but a week ago I put on Heartbreaker and it crushed me, partly because of just how brilliant it is, but mainly because it finally dawned on me that this record can never happen again.

Heartbreaker was written and recorded before Lost Highway tried to turn Ryan Adams into their cash-cow, before the critics decided this guy was the second fucking coming, and then decided he was just trying to be the second coming. It was before the Whiskeytown diehards hated him for making Gold, and before the Gold diehards hated him for making Rock N' Roll. It was before anyone even knew who he was, and before he was saddled with expectations so lofty that, in the eyes of fans, critics, and his label, he had no choice but to fall short. It was before cared so much about what they wanted him to do that they failed to see what he was doing. It was before all of the above poisoned the minds and hearts of non-believers against him, and prevented his records to be truly appreciated on the grand scale that they by all rights deserved to be.

Heartbreaker happened when he was still barely more than a kid, when he still had South Carolina soil clinging to the soles of his shoes, when he had nothing to prove to anyone, and as a result, proved everything to anyone who listened. It was a captured moment in time, it was a beginning, the start to a shockingly under-appreciated yet brilliant career, and if you listen close enough, you can hear all of that in a second-long sigh at the beginning of the sixth track on the record, and that sigh, that record, is magic. I really hope you have good speakers.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

III/IV and Some Other Stuff

When III/IV came out nearly a year ago, I started to write about it, but the the more I wrote, the more I began to rethink whether or not I should. The first time I heard Heartbreaker over a decade ago, I was enamored with the music of Ryan Adams, so much so that I told virtually everyone I knew to listen to him and I was pretty emphatic about it, maybe even relentless in my pursuit to convince people that they needed to pay attention to this guy. And at the time, my overzealousness was accepted by most because we all still thought Ryan Adams was human, but eventually, when we realized he was some kind of roboticon cyborg song machine turning out records at the same rate that assembly lines used to turn out Detroit Steel, most of those people who initially decided to take my advice grew indifferent, because, even though this makes no sense to me, his profligacy was a turn-off to people. How more music from an artist you like can be a bad thing I'm not quite sure, but I guess Ryan Adams' output was simply too much for people to keep up with. Apparently, people found it a bit overwhelming. Once this happened, my constant prattling on about the brilliance of Ryan Adams began to wear on my friends.

Don't mistake me, I don't think I'm so much a force in people's lives that my incessant ramblings actually negatively influenced people and polluted their minds against Ryan Adams, but it certainly wasn't helping him, and in my own little grass-roots type of way, that's what I was trying to do. So I stopped. Or more accurately, I started trying to convince myself that I was a non-partisan fan of Ryan Adams. I eventually took this stance with Easy Tiger, I did it with Cardinology, and for the most part, I did it with Orion, and for the last 298 days I've been doing that with III/IV, just doing my best to not really talk about them all that much.

I wanted people I knew to listen to it, but I didn't want it to seem like I was demanding that people listen to it, so I chose not to write about it. But now, I'm only 23 days away from owning Ashes & Fire, the first set of newly written and recorded songs from Ryan Adams in nearly 3 years (the album's release date is technically in 2 days, on October 11, but won't see a vinyl release until November 1, so I still have 3 weeks and 3 days), and I listened to a stream of the album earlier today via, and it's so good and so earnest, I'm sick of pretending to attempt to be non-biased when it comes to Ryan Adams because I'm not. Ryan Adams is quite possibly the best songwriter of my generation, and III/IV is about as good a record as he's ever recorded.

The title III/IV is in reference to the 2 lp set being the 3rd and 4th volumes of material recorded by The Cardinals. It was the first album Ryan Adams had ever recorded sober and it was recorded during the same sessions that yielded Easy Tiger, but unlike the first 2 volumes from the Cardinals, Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights and the session's sister album, III/IV is a Rock record in the truest, purest sense of the term.

Sure, there are a couple of folkish moments ("Typecast", "Death and Rats"), and a couple of goofball ones ("Star Wars", "Kill the Lights"). There are some Rock N' Roll cliché breakup songs (two of the strongest songs on the record, "Dear Candy", which sounds shockingly like a Rock version of Easy Tiger's first single "Two", and "Lucky and Blue", originally released as a stream on Adams' website in 2006 under the title "France"), and a few lighthearted moments too ("The Crystal Skull", "Gracie", "My Favorite Song", and one of Adams' most striking vocal performances ever, "Kisses Start Wars"), but what really makes III/IV so special is the "everything else" on the record. The majority of this double album is comprised of darkness, desperation, and self-deprecation; elements that have never truly been a part of Adams' repertoire. The album is essentially the work of a confused and terrified man, recently sober, reflecting on his days of indulgence and doing his best to atone for past indiscretions while trying to sort out who he his without his most treasured vices. The result is visceral, confessional, honest, and starkly beautiful.

"Breakdown Into the Resolve", "Ultraviolet Light", "Users", "Numbers", "Ice-Breaker", "Sewer at the Bottom of a Wishing Well", "P.S."; all songs about Adams' realization he's in danger, all songs about alcoholism, all songs about not liking yourself that much, and in some cases, not even really knowing yourself at all. But "No" is by far the most blatant and revealing of the record.

Something is wrong, something is wrong.
Something that was making me feel good is not,
Is not, is not, is not, is not.
And nobody understands, and it's all I've got.

These songs are rife with shame and self-loathing and fear, and that probably sounds uncomfortable because it is, but these songs are also so sincere that being uncomfortable is essential. In fact, it doesn't matter how you feel because ultimately you just blessed to be allowed to be able to peek behind the curtain and see the real man behind the music. That's pretty damn brave and it's jarringly refreshing.

But really, for me, III/VI is such a great record because it is one more glaring example of why Ryan Adams is probably the uncrowned king of contemporary pop music: he simply doesn't give a fuck. He does what he wants. He indulges every whim. Even though he has occasionally released a record that feels safe, he never tries to play it safe. He was a man only limited by his record company's confidence, and now that he's thrown of those shackles, the possibilities are limitless. If he wants to, he may release a series of Folk or Alt.-Country records that sound exactly like stuff he's put out before, but he also might record something that, not in a million years, we would ever imagine he or anyone else would record.

Ryan Adams isn't beholden to a stylistic precedence. He makes the album he wants to make, not the album might make him. He doesn't make albums he thinks he should record, he makes albums he wants to record. He's about personal intuition, not popular expectation. And in a day and age where artistic exploration has taken a backseat to commercial assumption, III/IV as an album and Ryan Adams as an artist is breath of about the freshest air we're going to breathe.