Audio: ‘Ghost,’ Ryan Adams

“Monday hurts just like the weekend / Closed promenades and a beer / And everything’s so close to leavin’ / It’s funny anyone comes here.”

From spring 2001’s Cowboy Technical Sessions, which also yielded the origins of My Love for You Is Real (yes, years later the standout on the Follow the Lights EP) and the ridiculous Liar. Various torrents around. I got my weekend, upbeat guitar on a sad song, and you got yours.

Can’t stop listening to alt ‘Come Pick Me Up’

If the original is right for a cloudy day, this demo version is perfect for a rainy day. Which it is, in this region. “It’s a bummer,” the local weather blog says. Weather aside, though, I’ve had this track up all week. The direct link is here, but the context is on This Mornin’ I Am Born Again.

I thought at first … well, after the first several dozen plays … the demo had a slower pace, but finally switching to the finished take, only the chorus was slower. Then I thought it was the drums. The drums were so prominent on the finished version and not on the demo at all. But I switched back to the demo and there was a drumbeat. Obviously, the final cut had more, louder drums, but they weren’t the real difference.

What was? The backing vocals. Kim Ritchey did the album’s, random people live. Beyond sound, the song meant one thing when a second voice joined the chorus. The song meant another when no one did.

This guitar kills blogging on autopilot

I couldn’t find a take I liked of Come Pick Me Up this morning, so Muppets and Legos were subs written in advance (shocker). But driving up the parkway, I got to feeling good about one clip I’d seen, even if it was muted for TV. Worth a five-minute break at my desk, probably tradeable for the hours they’ll get from me later.

What I love about the song today is exactly what’s undefinitive in the way people respond to it. Says Ryan Adams himself on the lyrics page: “I wrote this today.  It probably sucks.” Says a book blogger: “I don’t know if this song will make you feel better after a break-up, it could make you feel a whole lot worse and perhaps even force you on a bender. It has that sort of bend. God, it hurts and I’m happy.” Says a SongMeanings.net poster, “It is the song I want to dance to at my wedding.” Says the next one, “Not a song I’d picture at a wedding.” The song and all of these people leave me in a good mood.

The rest of that thread produces no agreement except around the classicism of life screwed up — whether that’s a good thing, when that’s a good thing, whether you’re looking out or looking in — and around how the song’s so good. Readers here may have their own perfected interpretations, but as Ryan says, they probably suck.

Comments are back

After listening to Demolition early last week, Ryan Adams’ new one and his Whiskeytown work Strangers Almanac arrived in the mail near week’s end. I’m not sure if the new one, Easy Tiger, beats Cold Roses for me. I don’t think it does. But the best of the new bunch are the kind that draw you in like Come Pick Me Up. When you break them apart from the album’s noise, I put Sun Also Sets and Pearls on a String up there so far. They’re open but obscured, where Cold Roses was open and unadorned. Both moods are viable, and the former is harder to write. Not harder to write alone, but with a narrative.

Strangers Almanac is good there. There’s not a bone in its wax that would let it ignore the narrative, because the narrative is everything. Music’s just a way to get there, and obscured and unadorned are whatever it takes. Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight has been the song on my lips the last week or so, pretty much since the moment Demlition night ended in a forfeit. It’s the version from the Faithless Street reissue, but the Strangers cut — newer to me — fortifies it. It’s the anchor on the first listen, and it’s destruction for a purpose.

The comments here were on their way back almost from the second they left, and I think I got it pretty quick but not quick enough to hold up the whole thing. Couldn’t have if I tried, or wouldn’t have wanted to. Some days you just lower your arms. Yesterday I archived the old comments, preserving them, and put in Blogger’s comment system. The old one, YACCS, had stopped upgrades and support a year-plus ago, bowing to systems like Blogger’s and desiring to invest time elsewhere. It was great while it lasted. But I was ready for it to go too and was glad to get the high sign to walk away. The new system offered comments on a per-post basis, which was what I needed.

When I write in Blogger now, the interface has passed me by. The words hit the keyboard a couple letters after my head, and they hit the screen a few more frustrating letters behind. By the time all the letters are down and they with the words are in the right order, the feeling to get them out the door is strong. If that feeling was the feeling sitting down to write, the emotion is double. In those times, I don’t want to stick around and I don’t want to come back. I want to push the chalkboard into the street and let an unexpected big-rig smash it to bits. It’s a different contract of interaction, building and clearly noting an exception. Turning a post’s comments off, every once in a while, satisfies the clause.

When comments weren’t here, I went looking for them. If only mentally before cutting myself off, I checked. They had never come in bunches, but the chance was there. They’d also predicated my yesterday. I went to bed Saturday not knowing what I’d done, and woke up today with at least the interactive contract in hand. It would’ve been helpful a day or a week earlier, and it was too late except to go forward. I spent the day with Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, recommended in comments here by a couple friends. The book, the best about reading I’ve ever read, was what I needed to come back to zero.

You need it too, as long as you can sit still long enough to read every word. Maybe you can read it, find your legs stretched at full extension and wonder with the sensation how long it’d been since you’d let them do as much. You then switch positions and spots dozens of times; as much as you enjoy the stretched feeling, you’re doing what you can. You watch the reflection of the sun go down, especially gold on the cap of the new high-rise down the street, and you remember that poem and how it was sad. You wait for the thunderstorm and type out the excerpts that mess with your head, the ones on comments and control that begin to sample the book. None of them describe anything fully, and you know you have to do better than description.

And just as I watch her while she reads, suppose she were to train a spyglass on me while I write? I sit at the desk with my back to the window, and there, behind me, I feel an eye that sucks up the flow of the sentences, leads the story in directions that elude me. Readers are my vampires. I feel a throng of readers looking over my should and seizing the words as they are set down on paper. I an unable to write if there is someone watching me: I feel that what I am writing does not belong to me any more. I would like to vanish, to leave behind for that expectation lurking in their eyes the page stuck in the typewriter, or, at most, my fingers striking the keys.

How well I would write if I were not here! If between the white page and the writing of words and stories that take shape and disappear without anyone’s ever writing them there were not interposed that uncomfortable partition which is my person! Style, taste, individual philosophy, subjectivity, cultural background, real experience, psychology, talent, tricks of the trade: all the elements that make what I write recognizable as mine seem to me a cage that restricts my possibilities. If I were only a hand, a severed hand that grasps a pen and writes … Who would move this hand? The anonymous throng? The spirit of the times? The collective unconscious? I do not know. It is not in order to be the spokesman for something definable that I would like to erase myself. Only to trasmit the writable that waits to be written, the tellable that nobody tells.

Perhaps the woman I observe with the spyglass knows what I should write; or, rather, she does not know it, because she is in fact waiting for me to write what she does not know; but what she knows for certain is her waiting, the void that my words should fill.

Idea for a story. Two writers, living in two chalets on opposite slopes of the valley, observe each other alternately. One of them is accustomed to write in the morning, the other in the afternoon. Mornings and afternoons, the writer who is not writig trains his spyglass on the one who is writing.

One of the two is a productive writer, the other a tormented writer. The tormented writer watches the productive writer filling pages with uniform lines, the manuscript growing in a pile of neat pages. In a little while the book will be finished: certainly a best seller — the tormented writer thinks with a certain contempt but also with envy. He considers the productive writer no more than a clever craftsman, capable of turning out machine-made novels catering to the taste of the public; but he cannot repress a strong feeling of envy for that man who expresses himself with such methodical self-confidence. It is not only envy, it is also admiration, yes, sincere admiration: in the way that man puts all of his energy into writing there is certainly a generosity, a faith in communication, in giving others what others expect of him, without creating introverted problems for himself. The tormented writer would give anything if he could resemble the productive writer; he would like to take hm as a model; his greatest ambition now is to become like him.

The productive writer watches the tormented writer as the latter sits down at his desk, chews his fingernails, scratches himself, tears a page to bits, gets up and goes into the kitchen to fix himself some coffee, then some tea, then camomile, then reads a poem by Holderlin (while it is clear that Holderlin has absolutely nothing to do with what he is writing), copies a page already written and then crosses it all out line by line, telephones the cleaner’s (though it was settled that the blue slacks couldn’t be ready before Tuesday), then writes some notes that will not be useful now but maybe later, then goes to the encyclopedia and looks up Tasmania (though it is obvious that in what he is writing there is no reference to Tasmania), tears up two pages, puts on a Ravel recording. The productive writer has never liked the works of the tormented writer; reading them, he always feels as if he is on the verge of grasping the decisive points, but then it eludes him and he is left with a sensation of uneasiness. But now that he is watching him write, he feels this man is struggling with something obscure, a tangle, a road to be dug leading no one knows where; at times he seems to see the other man walking on a tightrope stretched over the void, and his is overcome with admiration. Not only admiration, also envy; because he feels how limited his own work is, how superficial compared with what the tormented writer is seeking.

On the terrace of a chalet in the bottom of the valley a young woman is sunning herself, reading a book. The two writers observe her with the spyglass….

You fasten your seatbelt. The plane is landing. To fly is the opposite of traveling: you cross a gap in space, you vanish into the void, you accept not being in any place for a duration that is itself a kind of void in time; then you reappear, in a place and in a moment with no relation to the where and the when in which you vanished. Meanwhile, what do you do? How do you occupy this absence of yourself from the world and of the world from you? You read; you do not raise your eyes from the book between one airport and the other, because beyond the page there is the void, the anonymity of stopovers, of the metallic uterus that contains you and nourishes you, of the passing crowd always different and always the same. You might as well stick with this other abstraction of travel, accomplished by the anonymous uniformity of typographical characters: here, too, it is the evocative power of the names that persuades you that you are flying over something and not nothingness. You realize that it takes considerable heedlessness to entrust yourself to unsure instruments, handled with approximation; or perhaps this demonstrates an invincible tendency to passivity, to regression, to infantile dependence. (But are you reflecting on the air journey or on reading?)

Saddling up with Ryan Adams

I finally got a chance to listen to the Jacksonville City Nights MP3s this morning. I know they’re only half the album, but overall I’m not thrilled. There’s no Jacksonville Skyline here.

Please don’t confuse my take for nothing-great-after-Heartbreaker view. The spring’s Cold Roses remains in heavy rotation on my playlists, and I think a one-disc mix would have been up there with any release he’s done. Jacksonville is a different project, aiming much more country and western, and Adams deserves his usual credit for stretching horizons. But after just listening to half, I think he also deserves his usual criticism: Where’s the editor? Where’s the self-editing? He’s got a mess again here, and it’s not even as complicated as it usually is.

Dear John (lyrics) has Norah Jones and Adams loping over each other to frustrating effect, and I can’t buy Jones whispering, “Ten years passed / And I ended up with a house full of cats.” Adams writes so well about missing people, but he’s yet to write about death in any convincing fashion.

Work neither. That’s The Hardest Part‘s problem. The tune is pretty downplayed, so we’ve gotta focus on the words. The company store? The company boys? Sure, the song quickly gets into the work of love, but — employment, love or music — Adams doesn’t have enough credibility in any type of work to claim “the hardest part is working and I’ve worked enough.”

And let’s throw God in there while we’re at it. Peaceful Valley (lyrics) could easily be When Ryan Adams Talks to God (and Wears a Cowboy Hat). He’s got his country yodel in full effect and seems to have some misplaced yearning for CMT rotation. We’ve got the peaceful valley, “cities of gold,” “a gun to my head,” and the kicker:

Up there in the clouds
In that glorious kingdom
Tell me there ain’t nothing but an easy recline
Can I still smoke my cigarettes and have my coffee
Up there in heaven with a bottle of wine

I would’ve gone with “easy cheer/bottle of beer” or “life without fear/bottle of bear” or, were I feeling particularly high in the saddle, “field full of steer/bottle of beer.” But that’s just me. I also would’ve gone with listening instead to Elvis’ Peace in the Valley.

My Heart Is Broken thankfully breaks the losing streak. It’s a good one. It’s also a Whiskeytown song, AnsweringBell explains. Finding out this link, the first thing that comes to mind is how Amanda’s husband Charlie files his Adams albums under “W” for Whiskeytown “because it was a better band.” This song is a better song. It’s short. It’s sad. It makes you want to mosey and sing along.

Things revert to the work problem with Trains. “I’ve been working hard ever since I was a kid” is the line. Musically, the MP3 poster/blogger is right, the guitars here are more interesting than elsewhere, but when you stack them against the pantheon of locomotive-like chugging songs, they tumble way down the list. Trains expect better art.

Withering Heights (lyrics) attempts nothing in death, work or God’s direction, and it’s my favorite song of the bunch. I’m still getting past some Bronte issues, but I’m confident of success. There’s a delicacy here that makes legitimate even “the moon shines on the boulevard baby let’s ride.” No matter how many times the words have been said or the sentinments have been expressed, they can always mean something if you want them to, and Adams sounds like he means them here. With the guitar and piano in place as well, picking and plinking, he pulls off the balancing act.

The closing Don’t Fail Me Now (lyrics) has moments of that level of clarity — the opening piano and strings, the swinging door enunciation of “your darkened eyes.” But the missteps quickly outpace them. There’s gratuitous use of “gal,” overreliance on “Just don’t fail me now / You don’t do me right,” some annoyingly quiet whispers of Hollywood-style Western lines, and a melodramatic musical climax. If those troubles aren’t enough, the song is formerly known to Adams’ fans as When The Rope Gets Tight. So when you take a few minutes and listen for yourself to all these songs, be mindful. There’s gonna be a hangin’.

Good enough for me

I heard a bunch of new (to me) music this weekend, thanks to a friend. Included was a Ryan Adams show from December in Chicago, a show that was slammed by Jim Derogatis of the Sun-Times but turned out to be pretty enjoyable from where I was listening just now.

Highlighting the main set was Wish You Were Here from the fall’s Rock N Roll album. First, Adams played the album version. Then he played the speed metal version. Then he played the country swing version.

Then he played the Cookie Monster version.

Cotton candy and a rotten mouth
You’re so fucked up
I couldn’t help but have it for cookie
Everybody knows the way walk
Knows the way I talk
Knows the way I feel about cookie
It’s all a bunch of cookie
And there’s nothing to eat around here
(Inaudible line)
I’m totally so hungry
I wish you were cookie

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.

Ryan Adams

Adams has an album of unreleased demos coming out September 24. Listen to samples of the Demolition cuts here. Some of the material is a notch below the Gold and Heartbreaker material, and it proves again that he hasn’t figured out a good rock sound for himself. But there are some standout tracks. “Desire” and “Dear Chicago” make the album worth the money/download.

The guy certainly leaves you guessing. Does he care about his audience or not? Can’t tell by his concerts. Does he care about other people or not? Can’t tell by his lyrics. Where’s his career headed? Can’t tell by this release.