Where to start with Ryan Adams?
It’s becoming increasingly clear that Ryan Adams wants to be an iconic rock god. He’s not satisfied with the Boy Genius tag he’s been given since his days in Whiskeytown, either. Since launching his solo career in 2000, he’s been astoundingly prolific, announcing project after project, and then shelving most of them after completion. But he spends at least as much time on his carefully crafted image. Even though few outside of his circle of fans know his name or his music, and most people still confuse him with Canadian popster Bryan Adams, he’s positioned himself as the new Savior of Rock, and he does all he can do to live up to that.
And it’s been showing through in his music. Where Whiskeytown was down-to-earth and confessional, Adams’ solo projects have been more and more artificial, more concerned with putting on a good show than with using music as a conduit between souls. That’s always been fine with me – I enjoy artists like Beck and David Bowie, who change personas as often as they change underwear. But Adams’ legion of fans, those same folks who were lauding his singular talent when Strangers Almanac came out, have been put off lately by his antics and a solo career that at times feels like it’s careening out of control.
Adams is undoubtedly going for icon status – he wants to be the Sensitive Rocker, the Cool Hipster, the Dangerous Rebel With the Heart of Gold. He imagines himself as the Unpredictable, Self-Destructive Rock Star, and it’s an archetype he’s wearing like a suit. And his recent albums have sounded like products of the same archetype, cut from the same motivational cloth. Everything he does now is another building block in his self-aggrandizing myth.
But hell, it’s starting to be a fun ride, especially lately. Adams has been systematically demolishing his prior sound, established during the Whiskeytown days and perfected on his stunning solo debut, Heartbreaker. In 2001, he released Gold, an old-fashioned double album that jumped from style to style, as if Adams had just discovered a musical world outside of alt-country. (Most of Gold fits on one disc, but he cheekily titled the five-song bonus platter Side Four, a tip of the hat to the days of vinyl.) He then launched into four simultaneous projects with four different bands, a sampler of which was released last year under the title Demolition.
Through it all, Adams has been veering away from the twangy country-rock with which he made his name, so much so that sections of Demolition sound like the aural equivalent of a raised middle finger aimed at his former fans. Nothing wrong with that, either – Adams is evolving, and if some of his audience refuse to follow him, then so be it. Trouble is, his label, the No Depression haven Lost Highway, is starting to feel the strain.
So when Adams delivered Love Is Hell, the proper follow-up to Gold, early this year, Lost Highway told him he’d gone too far. It seems Adams has been in a melancholy ’80s mood lately, so he found himself a producer known for that sort of thing – John Porter, who made a number of Smiths albums, among others. Together they crafted a mellow reverie, layered and sad, that (of course) bore no resemblance to the alt-country for which Adams was signed. So now Adams can add a Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-style story of label rejection to his myth – Lost Highway sent the album back and told Adams to do better.
And all things considered, they probably shit a brick when they heard Adams’ idea of “doing better.” The album Lost Highway accepted (probably out of exasperation) is called Rock N Roll, and it’s as simple, loud and direct as its title. Adams has apparently decided to stay in the ’80s, only this time, he really wants to be Paul Westerberg. It’s the noisiest thing he’s made yet, full of ringing guitars and screamed vocals, and propelled by pounding drum beats that’ll make the Uncle Tupelo fans go into cardiac arrest. It’s exactly the sort of impetuous, dumb, legend-making record that gets one noticed, especially if it’s recorded under duress.
Thankfully, Adams writes good Paul Westerberg songs, so Rock N Roll isn’t a total waste. Still, it feels like a quick, dumb detour, one recorded in a weekend. Adams crashes through the first four songs so quickly that they barely register – they’re all flurries of guitar and shouted choruses. “So Alive” is an ’80s anthem, all soaring melody and thudding beat. With “Note to Self: Don’t Die,” Adams has somehow come up with one of the year’s best song titles and married it to one of its lamest songs, a plodding grunge dirge that couldn’t have taken him more than an hour to write.
Ironically, the title track is the one moment of reflective pause here, and it stands out. It’s a brief piano number over which Adams laments, “Everybody’s cool playing rock and roll, I don’t feel cool at all.” That number heralds the superior final act, beginning with “Anybody Wanna Take Me Home,” a perfect Replacements mimicry. But by the time “The Drugs Not Working” completes its extended coda and fade, you’ve realized that Adams has gone a whole record without delivering anything heart-stoppingly great. It’s all a big show, fun for a bit but wearying upon repeated listens.
At the very least, this whole fiasco has shown that record label stupidity extends to even the most artist-friendly minors. Yes, Lost Highway finally released Love Is Hell, inexplicably broken up into two EPs, and yes, it’s considerably better than Rock N Roll. In fact, I can’t figure out why they didn’t just run with it in the first place – if after Demolition they still think Adams is going to go back to the twang, they’re deluded. And he obviously poured his heart into this one, in a way he just didn’t on Rock N Roll.
Love Is Hell is a hushed, mostly acoustic affair full of poetry and atmosphere. It’s absolutely an attempt at bringing out the Sensitive Side of the Dangerous Rocker, and it’s all for show – he mentions the Chelsea Hotel not once, but twice, for pity’s sake – but this show is a good one. Only two songs (the title track and “This House is Not For Sale”) shift the tempos above the patient, languorous pace of the opener, “Political Scientist.” Often Adams is only accompanied by acoustic guitar or piano. It’s meant to sound like the Window Into the Tortured Soul, and it succeeds.
Whatever the motivations behind it, though, Love Is Hell is a deeply enjoyable work, from the Jeff Buckley imitation on “Afraid Not Scared” to the lovely chorus melody of “Avalanche” to the dramatic Cure-inspired sound of “City Rain, City Streets.” It takes Adams into new places, which is exactly Lost Highway’s complaint, of course. He covers Oasis’ “Wonderwall” here, turning it from pop-crap to something approaching affecting, and he apes Bruce Springsteen on closer “Hotel Chelsea Nights.” There’s no defining, statement-making sound, but there is an advanced sense of songcraft, something sorely missing from Rock N Roll.
The album also doesn’t benefit from the two-EPs approach – it forces each half to stand on its own, and like Tarantino’s Kill Bill (similarly cleaved in two), it’s meant to be experienced whole. “Avalanche” is a perfect middle-of-the-record song, and “My Blue Manhattan” follows it nicely. Unfortunately, the former closes part one, and the latter opens part two. Who knows if this is even the originally intended sequence of Love Is Hell, but in this form, splitting it into halves doesn’t make any sense. Plus, didn’t the label have to press two CDs, print two booklets and distribute two records this way? Each part costs about seven bucks, so they’re not making much more than they would had they released one CD for 13, and it seems to me that the expenses are much higher. Especially for an album the label purports to dislike.
Music aside, these two releases (three if you count the two EPs separately) add immeasurably to the myth of Ryan Adams. Here we have both his Great Lost Record and his Petulant Comeback to His Label. The stories behind the albums are, one imagines, at least as important to him as the albums themselves. The shame here is that neither album is as good as Gold, which wasn’t quite as good as Heartbreaker. The Ryan Adams Pose is already leading him down a self-destructive career path, one that hardly ever ends well. Part of me hopes he’ll snap out of it and make a killer album soon, but the other part secretly hopes for a fun ride to a musical crash and burn, just because it will make a good story. Either way, it remains to be seen whether the artist will trump the myth or be drowned by it.
Next week, Johnny Cash.
See you in line Tuesday morning.