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.

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