Produced and Engineered by Ethan Johns
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Well, I’ve missed one deadline already, but I’m determined to keep things at least somewhat in line. It isn’t much help that I was trying to cram a double album in this particular entry, but that’s neither here nor there at this point, and we must move onward and upward.
I’m no stranger to Ryan Adams, nor am I even a stranger to writing about him or his music. At all. One of my most passionate and emphatic entries on my previous blog was about his previous band: Whiskeytown. Specifically, I was pouring out my adulation and praise on their sophomore (sort of) effort Strangers Almanac. In all that writing, I have most definitely covered how I stumbled into the man’s work as an actual listener (“Come Pick Me Up” as it appeared in Cameron Crowe’s film Elizabethtown), as well as the fact that I ignored it for some time prior to that. You’ve got links there, and some passable outlining, so I’ll skip past all of that here and head straight for this album.
Gold was released eleven years ago in 2001, and this is a tenth anniversary copy from 2011. There was actually a vinyl pressing initially (on red and blue vinyl), but the album largely disappeared in this incarnation not too much long after that initial appearance. When I say “this incarnation,” I refer to one of the stories I’ve mentioned a few times before in talking about Mr. Adams, but that bears repeating here for its absolute relevance. When Gold was initially released, Adams’s prolific songwriting had not yet become quite the absurdist joke it is today, without a clear and public website pouring out alternate (electronic, metal–even rap) personas, some serious, some joking, some inbetween somewhere. Still, Lost Highway balked somewhat at his proposed album (the 21 tracks above) and ended up with the strange compromise of a limited edition CD release. The first 150,000 copies of Gold that were pressed on Cd included a “bonus CD” entitled “Side 4” which is, well, Side Four above, the final five tracks. After those pressings, all copies were scaled back to a single CD and the first 16 tracks.
Double albums are something of a curiosity now that we’ve seen both the rise and the fall of the compact disc format as a popular means of music consumption. From the slew of “2-Record Set on 1 Compact Disc” banners on the initial release of some double albums (such as the initial CD release of The Clash’s London Calling) on to the rise of the “double album” as means of describing 2-CD releases that would’ve been at least triple LPs (a common sight in 90’s rap, such as Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s The Art of War, which omitted three tracks for its release on a “2-Record Set” so that it could fit!).
Naturally, the formatting really just relates to runtime, and becomes somewhat arbitrary as a result. When we’re talking about vinyl–as we are here–progressive rock bands could easily confuse the matter with a few of the more long-winded sorts of tracks. A handful of fifteen minute tracks would rapidly push a vinyl release out to at least 3 sides, even with overall runtimes beneath that of the complete usability of a single record, simply because they could not be crammed easily into the separate sides of a record. Things just get more confusing when we throw in the modern technique of increasing sound quality by mastering records at 45rpm, so that a single, reasonable-length album is now on 2 records simply because they play at faster speed and hold less music.
All of this is a roundabout way of addressing the formatting issues of Gold: listening to this on vinyl, it’s easy to notice that the needle lifts very quickly after the end of each side until the final one. There’s a lot of music packed into these grooves, which reflects on the fact that there was no way to make this one of those “2-Record Set on 1 Compact Disc” releases. Side 4 was relegated to an additional CD out of necessity, not defiance. Now, whether this was the way to do it–limiting availability, splitting things unevenly so as to not imply “double album” status on a primarily-CD release, that’s another question. The limited availability is frustrating and confusing in the end: I know a few people who have liked Mr. Adams’s music long before I, such as my father who bought me my copy of Strangers Almanac, and none of them knew that this release existed originally. They also pulled my least favourite trick in the book and did not change the UPC or other indicators for the album so that anyone might actually be aware that this occurred, or so that the initial release could be readily acquired.
In the end, it was all of this mess that made me very pleased when I walked into one of my favourite record stores (CD Alley) and saw this vinyl release. Now the infamous “Side 4” would be exactly what it claimed: the fourth side of the album, not a clever/hip name for a “bonus CD.” That it was on clear vinyl was just icing on the cake–even if “clear” has rapidly become the second most common colour for vinyl in my collection (after “black,” I mean). In the end: all of this means this has somehow become the ideal format for me for the album. It splits it more evenly and comfortably than the CD release does (though I have snagged a few copies of the multi-disc version over the years and will give them to fans I know, as I want them to be appreciated).
Now, I’ve rambled a lot here without actually hitting on the music. I get a bit antsy trying to talk about singer/songwriter types, as the whole thing throws me personally for a loop. There’s nothing more difficult to estimate for me than a person’s name. Sure, plenty of people feel like a name is somehow representative–whether it’s the rather mystical sense of prediction or the idea that people grow into them, or even a sort of cynical sense of, “You get to know a person, you retroactively assign meaning from their name”–but there’s nothing without a further impression or some sense of what that whole name could mean even for another person. “Have you heard the music/songs of ____?” I might be asked. The question is easy to answer, but if the answer is “No,” I haven’t a clue what to expect of the person I’m about to be told to listen to. Names are assigned long before music is a part of a person’s identity, even if they are the child of a famous musician.
Ryan Adams’ reputation suggests alt-country, or at least it used to. The image above you could probably quickly reason out as being feasible for that assignation: blue jeans and an American flag. But there’s spiked black (clearly dyed) hair, and the flag is upside-down. The style he displays otherwise as well as the body language don’t tell you much either, except that “country” without some modifier is unlikely.
In the end, it’s not easy to place the album. It fits in a lot of places if you want it to, but can easily be pulled out and rested comfortably in very different ones. It would almost be easier to list what it isn’t–metal, rap, plain country, jazz… What we have is an album you might at first think would be cannibalized for usage in television dramas, where popular singer/songwriters are often immortalized as the voice of a dramatic event of some kind. Cursory listens might not even betray this, and you could feel pretty good (or appropriately bad) at the right moment in a dramatized event hearing songs like “Harder Now That It’s Over,” or “La Cienega Just Smiled,” but if you start paying attention it starts getting awkward or strange. “New York, New York” was apparently exceedingly popular following the events of September 11th, and you can easily tell why from the chorus (“The world won’t wait and I watched you shake/But honey I don’t blame you/Hell, I still love you, New York”), but the verses betray a much more human sensibility: “Found a picture that would fit in the folds/Of my wallet and it stayed pretty good/Still amazed I didn’t lose it on the roof of your place/When I was drunk and I was thinking of you.” He does name streets and locations which often earns a warm feeling from any locale’s residents, but the focal point bounces between love of a person and love of a city.
It’s really that kind of split focus that drives the listenability and identification of the whole album: Ryan once noted that he wrote about love as someone who was not driven, motivated, won, lost, broken or completed by it, that this gave him a kind of outsider’s perspective that made his writing about it more easily identified (comparing himself, at the time, to Alejandro Escovedo in this respect). This seems like the key to his work in many ways. The stories of his occasional primadonna behaviour have no bearing on his music because you can see them as earnest and honest as well as just well-written stories. You can tell he’s singing like he feels it, but you can believe he’s feeling it for someone else just as easily. It’s like a strong actor bringing real emotion to a role without utterly losing themselves in it.
There’s something to be said for honesty and there’s something to be said for craft, but there’s even more to be said for bringing the two together and losing neither. All of side one rings out with catchy choruses and interesting instrumentation (bongos on “New York, New York,” a harmonica lead on “Firecracker” that really sets its tone, banjo on “Answering Bell”…) without feeling too weird, too confectionary, or too heavy emotionally. “La Cienega Just Smiled” is in his own strong tradition of subdued, relaxed near-ballads that inevitably have their corners and dark points.
That is the real joy of Adams, and it comes from the same place as his “observer’s romanticism.” If you want to feel sad from a song like “Sylvia Plath” (co-written with Richard Causon), you easily can. Or you can stay just as cheerful and appreciate the broken requests of it (“I wish I had a Sylvia Plath/Busted tooth and a smile/And cigarette ashes in her drink”). That broken element is not an uncommon one, and it helps to define why this isn’t music that fits too neatly into dramatic scenes unless you aren’t paying close attention–the sounds are right, but the words are only half-right, and are more like reality, or at least a twisted version of it, than they are like the idealized, hyper-emotional content of a lot of dramas. Even “Come Pick Me Up” from Elizabethtown, placed to emphasize a growing romance is very strange: “Come pick me up/Take me out/Steal all my records/Screw all my friends/With a smile on your face/Then do it again/I wish you would.” I should probably clarify for the confused that this song appears on the previous album, Heartbreaker.
When Adams talks about alcohol–and he did have a real drinking problem–it’s not with machismo, or a crafted romanticism or humourous drunkenness like Tom Waits’s earlier material. It’s more a fact of life, and one than doesn’t make life better, and most likely makes it worse, but is desirable all the same. None of the music, though, suffers from the kind of swinging looseness that you might associate with alcohol. The image of Ryan sitting on a couch with elbow on knee and head on hand next to a turntable, relaxed and almost-bored is perhaps the most correct image. The turntable gets almost equal placement with him in the photo, as if to emphasize the idea of ritual listening that vinyl tends to encourage: in the foreground, forming the scene itself, rather than just framing it. It’s music that can appeal as music, that can appeal for its sense in wording, that can appeal as emotive and affecting, music that can place you in a relaxed, backporch sort of atmosphere to hear someone tell stories of heartache, or be right there with you in your own heartache. And sometimes it’s just there to be fun, listing the broken and jagged parts of life in with the rest, not to emphasize, mourn or bemoan but just to describe.
This is possibly Ryan’s most popular album, and it in no way fails to deserve acclaim, though many like the darker work of collections like Cold Roses or Love Is Hell. It has sold nearly a million copies, meaning the full edition is less available as time goes on and the album continues to be pressed (indeed, my current retail employer carries a copy in my store, eleven years later, even as music is less and less often purchased in a physical format–though, of course, the cropped version). I was struck with the strange notion that Ryan’s photos in 2003’s much-derided Rock N Roll are actually a solid indicator of Ryan’s persona as it comes through his songs: it is less about making you think he is a rocking badass with tattoos and chains and more about conveying his tastes and personality, as someone who likes those rougher sides of things and doesn’t shy away from them, but doesn’t claim absolute, hardened truth from them. Again: an actor in a role, but taking that role seriously.
Perhaps the lingering popularity and the continued availability should tell us something–or maybe they should tell Lost Highway something: maybe ending on “Goodnight, Hollywood Blvd” ends the album rightly, or maybe we should all have had “Cannonball Days” and its “New York, New York”-like tempos to end the album. For me, it’s the latter–but maybe the sales say otherwise.
Next Up: The Alan Parsons Project – I, Robot