Hold up a mirror and tell me who I am

ROCK N ROLL reads the cover of Ryan Adams’ new album after you hold it up in the mirror. “It’s totally fucked up,” Adams says four songs in. “I’m totally fucked up. Wish you were here.”

Your response probably depends on whether you want to deal with the admittedly fucked up or not. Tolerance, baby. You got it? How much you got? You got enough for a whole album that hugs you and leaves scratches on your neck?

Rock N Roll is a confusing album, both for its content and its station. The volume is notches above 2001’s semi-colloquial Gold and a wall of speakers above 2000’s sparse and beautiful Heartbreaker. The tone is also more aggressive than ever. Sensitivity gets tucked into the corners. “Wish you were here.” To find it in greater quantities, check out his Love Is Hell EPs dropping this month and next. (Though no more cohesive than his Demolition demo-release, the EPs offer sensitive.)

The Rock N Roll songs mine a host of sources from recent decades, or so I’m told, ranging from early U2 to The Cure to Paul Westerberg to Nirvana to The Strokes. I don’t have the depth of knowledge to weigh these claims, but I do know Adams’ jangle key must’ve been stomped to death. While a sonic departure, the album is true to his nature.

The way Adams is, if he was walking down the street and someone stepped on his shoe, he’d write a song about it. I said that three years ago, and I still believe it. I can’t believe too much more about Adams because he’s not trustworthy. Sarcasm, irony, lying and those relationship emotions that scald your head when nobody’s saying a word. All that, and not one lick of sense to keep them inside and get to the point.

Back then I didn’t like it. I wanted a point. I wanted to invest in the lyrics. So when Adams gave you lyrics and then said it was bullshit, I didn’t like holding the bag of tears or joy or whatever the fraud was handing out.

But now I don’t mind so much. Why? Because I just don’t care as much. I don’t care as much about anything anymore, and that cup seems awfully comfortable at Adams’ table. He can write and sell an album; I’ll buy it and doubt him. At every single turn, I’ll doubt him as much as I doubt myself. In the end, we’ll have an experience with virtually no emotional resonance, which is what we both were looking for anyway.

Most people will come away with different reactions. Spin picks up the positive in its December issue, with the aquatically named Marc Spitz traveling below sea level to find Adams in New Orleans. Spitz addresses the past full bore ““ the lyrical toying, the real life toying, the musical lifting (from the Stones and others) that seems to be Adams’ rock velcro. The new album is exorcism, Spitz concludes:

Ultimately, insincerity is part of Adams’ sincerity, and embracing that with the help of some evil guitar riffs may restore his charm. Ryan Adams is a romantic poet. A gifted musician. A celebrity asshole. And a really nice guy. At the moment, all of his personalities are coexisting happily on record and inside his East Village apartment, where he drinks tea, smokes cigarettes, and prepares to reenter the pop-music world.

But one man’s explosion is many more men’s indulgence, and one man’s homage is many more men’s theft. Amanda Petrusich rips Adams apart in her Pitchfork review of the album:

Ultimately, the problem isn’t knee-jerk alt-country purists getting pissed about Adams’ penchant for electric guitars, or cred-obsessed indie kids hollering about Gap commercials, it’s Adams’ newfound incapacity (or refusal) to write a song with any acceptable degree of sincerity ““ and knowing that he probably could really stings.

The question of sincerity comes up in both analyses, and I’m not sure either writer is inside Adams’ head enough to make the judgments they do. Post-modern (post punk) rock is going more meta with each passing month. The societal neurons are growing denser and denser in the space between artists and their work. Truth seems to be getting as vague as obscenity. We know it when we see it, and we don’t know much more.

Is Adams purposely rocking the void? I wouldn’t put it past him. Back in school, you’d always hear about the cultural influences of authors. The influences were always a mixed bag, some believable and some not.

In the latter category, the author had probably grown up poor or uneducated or on the other side of the world. And you wondered, how could s/he have known about those artistic or political or sociological trends? I buy more of those theories today than I used to, but many still seem a stretch. People are paid to make connections, even about the folks who lived life relatively unconnected. But Adams is not one of those folks.

I’d buy Adams having influences from anyone who ever got within 300 feet of a Lomax recording device or any recording device manufactured since. I can’t tell Westerberg from Fogelberg, but even I picked up two lifted riffs in the outer rings of Rock N Roll.

Hearing the Stones’ You Got Me Rocking in the chords of 1974 wasn’t surprising. Adams has been to the Stones well so many times before, typically from earlier material. What was surprising was the appearance of the Hollies’ Long Cool Woman charging Adams’ Shallow. The riff was and is terrific, but how many rockers in this century look to it for inspiration?

That’s where I ultimately fall on this album: inspiration. If Adams wants to rock out and clear his head, he’s more than welcome to do so. As long as he gives us the price of admission, he can start a cover band for all I care. The familiar is a good place for any artist to begin or begin again.

That leaning came up sideways in an October New Yorker article. Peter Schjeldahl wrote of James Rosenquist bringing his previous billboard painting skills into an art career. Rosenquist’s import, the writer argued, wasn’t a cheaper trick than “(Andy) Warhol’s photo silk-screening and (Roy) Lichtenstein’s limning of panels from comic strips.” The argument could have easily defined Rock N Roll:

The goal in all cases was to fuse painting aesthetics with the semiotics of media-drenched contemporary reality. The naked efficiency of anti-personal artmaking defines classic Pop. It’s as if someone were inviting you to inspect the fist with which he simultaneously punches you.

In other words, there’s a desire and hate for attention. Rope-a dope, really. Deep inside Rock N Roll, Adams lays out this survival strategy. In Note to Self: Don’t Die, he says: “Note to self: Don’t die for anyone / Note to self: Don’t die / Note to self: Don’t change for anyone / Don’t change, just lie.” Is it any coincidence he follows this with the title track’s Heartbreaker-like quiet? On an album built on noise and power, Adams makes the album’s namesake an admission of doubt. “Everybody’s cool playing rock n’ roll,” he sings, “I don’t feel cool, feel cool at all.”

Is Rock N Roll a radio cure for Adams?

As a downhearted music lover could testify, there are arguments for and against radio cures. Springsteen finds himself searching for one on Nebraska‘s Open All Night, “Hey, mister deejay, woncha hear my last prayer, hey, ho, rock’n’roll, deliver me from nowhere.” The line’s a desperate cry in rocker phrasing. But as Springsteen knew then and came to accept a decade later, music only get you so far in dealing with your problems. It’s a palliative, not a cure. Wilco makes a valid point ““ “electronic surgical words” are limiting in their precision.

Until we see his next album, I don’t think we can judge Adams’ purpose on Rock N Roll. The album feels like a point and not a path of any style or sort. But it works as a radio cure for me. Until something real comes along, we can hold up the mirror. Then we can touch, feel and lose. Cry, cry, cry.

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