To be young, is to be sad, is to be high
Ryan Adams released that song on his debut album Heartbreaker, 14 years ago. In the subsequent time he’s released 14 albums. To put that into some context Leonard Cohen has released 13 albums since his debut in 1967, and even the notoriously prolific Bob Dylan hasn’t managed to keep up an album a year. Ok, so he’s got a long way to go to get anywhere near Dennis Taaffe’s impressively pointless 147 full length albums, kudos, and some sympathy to anyone who’s listened to all of them, but it’s very clear that Ryan Adams is a prolific musician. Add on top of that his production history, record label and poetry books and you get the picture of a man with a work ethic and a creative mind.
Our first experience of Ryan was, rather oddly, Demolition; a 2002 release that saw various tracks from three unreleased studio albums cobbled together and released as an album, as introduction to the man’s back catalogue, it’s a pretty awful choice. It’s not actually a bad record, despite what Ryan himself says, and still feature some songs that are either are very good, or at the very least benefit from some wonderful sentimental attachment (the likes of Cry On Demand, Nuclear & Tennessee Sucks are wonderful). The downside of Demolition is that it’s not Heartbreaker, anyone starting a thorough study, or even an entry level, general listening to Ryan Adams, should start with Heartbreaker!
Heartbreaker is simply a great debut album. To our ears it sits neatly alongside the likes of Unknown Pleasures, Turn On The Bright Lights and Funeral in the upper echelons of the greatest first records of all time. It was beautifully summarised by Pitchfork, who described it as “a startling 15-song masterpiece, Heartbreaker is a drinker’s album, an ode to sadness that deals exclusively with all the dark and dirty corners of the human heart. It’s music written in the language of loneliness, depression, and, above all, heartbreak, in all its varied forms.” There’s not much we can add to that, other than to encourage you to listen, and then listen again and again and again. Listen to the tumbling down a flight of stairs vocal melody of Call Me On Your Way Back Home, listen to the beautifully judged guest vocal from Emmylou Harris on Sweet Carolina, and listen to the lyrics, all of the lyrics, take yourself back to your teenage years, your college years, your Heartbreak years, and then laugh and cry simultaneously at the line from Come Pick Me Up, “come pick me up, take me out, fuck me up, steal all my records, screw all my friends, they’re all full of shit, with a smile on your face, then do it again.”
You’ll never get over Heartbreaker, but when you’ve picked yourself up off the floor, listen to Gold, the pop-laden alt-country record that made him a star, then listen to Love Is Hell, an album so sad it’s less crushing than it is crushed, then listen to the criminally underrated 29, then the delightfully quiet country of Ashes & Fire or the superb double album released alongside The Cardinals, Cold Roses.
Then put Heartbreaker back on…then do it again
RYAN ADAMS – RYAN ADAMS
So 14 years and 14 albums in, the time has come for the self-titled album by Ryan Adams. Bob Dylan and The Smiths, both heroes of Ryan’s, did it straight off the bat; they said this is our debut album, this is who we are and what we have to say. The Band did it second so did Warpaint, Blur fifth, David Byrne fourth, Jonny Cash well he sort of did it most times, 13 of his studio albums include his name in some shape or other. At any time in your career self-titling an album makes a point, it tells the listener that this album is the one where you are happy with your output and happy for it to represent you. When your career is as diverse as Ryan’s it could seemingly be taken as a real statement, this being Ryan Adams though it could all be a massive joke! Take the cover art, it’s a closely cropped picture of his face, yes he looks remarkably good for a 39 year old, who’s taken as many illicit substances as he has, but it’s still ludicrously bad and amusing in equal measures. Then more subtly there’s the font, his name simply laid out across the top of the page, it looks remarkably like the font a certain Bryan Adams used on his greatest hits. With Ryan Adams being the man who’s given us Orion, a “fully realised, sci-fi metal concept album” and appeared in the punk band Finger, who released an album called We Are Fuck You and an EP called Punk’s Dead Let’s Fuck, there’s always a good chance it’s a big joke at all of our expense.
Whether the title and art-work are just a wonderfully acted piss-take or not, the music on this album is thankfully not. Interestingly it’s the first time that Ryan has ever self-produced an album, following some troubled sessions with Ashes & Fire producer Glyn John’s at Sunset Studio’s, Ryan halted work on that record and hauled up with his long-term recording partner Mike Viola at his own PAX-AM studio. They started again, writing and recording this record from scratch, influenced by Punk and Rock records from his youth, he set about writing an album that he wanted to make, rebelling against what anyone else wants him to sound like and just making a record true to the comic book reading, Husker Du loving, sci-fi nerd that he is, and the record undeniably sounds free.
Thirty-nine years of age, happily married, free from label constraints, not having to explain himself to Lost Highway or basically anyone else, Ryan should by all accounts be pretty happy. That’s a notoriously difficult place for any artist, let alone one with a back catalogue as drenched in sadness as Ryan. In fact lyrically at least, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether he’s got anything to say anymore. The evidence here is probably best described as patchy. At times he seems to be trying to set himself up for criticism, Julian Casablancas famously sang “I’ve got nothing to say” and has never lived it down with critics, here Ryan gives us words to that affect on not just one, but three separate tracks. He sings “I can’t talk I got nothing to say, like there’s no tomorrow barely yesterday” on the albums opening track Gimme Something Good, “sometimes I’ve got nothing to say, I’ve been on repeat since yesterday” on Trouble and on I Just Might “got nothing to say, got nothing to prove.” True they could all be in the context of a relationship turned rotten, but the feeling that some of these tracks aren’t his deepest and most revelatory thoughts is hard to escape.
Musically too there’s a few throw away moments, Gimme Something Good possesses a belter of a chorus, but ultimately floats too close to Bon Jovi; the muted guitar of I Just Might is reminiscent of Tom Petty and Foo Fighters in equal measures; sure it sounds like he’s having fun, but it’s frankly bland, and Stay With Me can only really be described as big! Big solos, big choruses, big Springsteen influence, and the only things that’s not big is any meaning at all, “love you baby so treat me right” is as uninspired as he’s sounded since his label made him release Rock’n’Roll.
As with most of his recent output, it’s inconsistent, but as always it’s worth the odd duff tracks for the absolute magic in between, and this is probably scattered with more fantastic moments than any of his albums since 2005’s brilliant album 29. Kim starts of life with muted, rhythmic guitars and is joined by a beautiful, gentle wash of keys, as he sings “I spell out your name, it’s fucking with my head, fucking with my heart” the song resolves to a crisp, cleaner guitar sound and a single pounding drum and builds to a frankly wonderful chorus. It’s probably most reminiscent of his mainstream breakthrough album Gold than anything since; lyrically it’s a classic break-up track, Ryan singing “underneath my feet there’s miles of nothing, nowhere to go” with “your name ringing in my head like a false alarm.”
Am I Safe is a rocky, acoustic number, it see’s Ryan reminiscing about “pictures on the wall, when we used to smile” but ultimately concluding “it’s complicated, I just don’t love your anymore”. Tired Of Giving Up recalls his production work on the recent Jenny Lewis album, slick, radio-friendly, country pop with Ryan “tired of giving up so easy, tired of giving up at all” with a girl who’s “so wild and full of rage.” Whilst closing track Let Go hints at the same motorik-hum that’s made The War On Drugs one of the years big success stories, and a clear influence on this album, mixed with Ryan’s pop-tendencies, a fabulous mix, before you even get to the wonderful lyric “cross your fingers behind you back, and lie to me, tell me it’s okay and you’ll fix everything.”
Even better is My Wrecking Ball. It may instantly bring Miley Cyrus to mind but in reality, it’s a beautifully raw, stripped-back acoustic ballad. The sort of country tinged folk number that perfectly showcases his gorgeous vocal crackling with raw emotion. It sounds like a man alone, disconnected from the world “lying in bed at night, feeling like I’m somebody else”, as he recalls “everyone I used to know” who “left their dreams at the door.” He knows that “all the walls we built, they must come down” but the only person who can help is the person with whom he built the walls, and tinged in longing and loss he’s left simply concluding “I wish I could call you, I wish you were still around.” It’s as wonderful as it is sad!
Best of all might just be Shadows. It possesses the same lyrical atmosphere (“I fall, in the cutting room, straight to the floor, before the film is through”) and lonesome guitar sound that made Love Is Hell a wonderfully dark, and complex beast. He’s noted that it, in part, deals with his ongoing battle with Meniers disease, but the creeping Shadows can surely also be seen as a metaphor for depression and the way it creeps into you, described beautifully here as a “cold front roll in like a black balloon and it sinks into your soul”, he ends pleading almost howling for more time “how long do I have with you? The flowers that once were anew, before the shadows.” A distant cousin of his own track, This House Is Not a Home, it’s arguably even better and as exciting and different to anything he’s put to record in his career to date.
The question you’re left wondering is probably the same you’ve had with the majority of his post 2005 releases: where next? That’s because it has the same inconsistency all of those records do, brilliant moments but a lack of focus. Brilliant tracks, but a scatter gun approach to putting them together. He’s as creative, talented and infuriating as ever and once again gives you enough goosebump moments to ensure you’ll still be around and listening next time he puts a record out.
Ryan Adams by err… Ryan Adams, is out now on Ryan Adams record label Pax Am. He tours North America during October and November