Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Musical Obsessions – A Confession

I’m obsessed by the music of Ryan Adams. It is the first time in my life that any artist has so grabbed my sensibility and refused to let go. Hero worship is not for me, so how do I explain this fixation on Ryan Adams?

I discovered Ryan Adams in 1997 when I bought the Whiskeytown CD Stranger’s Alamanac, at the recommendation of the good people at Basement Discs. I listened to it quite a few times without paying it any particular attention. I liked it, but didn’t think it was all that special.

I became hooked late one Friday night, after arriving home from the pub. Not wanting to go to bed quite then, I smoked a joint, opened a can of beer, donned the headphones and listened to the CD again. It was then that Ryan Adams voice captured me heart and soul. I hadn’t until then actually noted the band personnel; they were just a good band with no standout performers. David Ryan Adams, as he designated on the CD, from then on grabbed my attention.

Of course, his days with Whiskeytown were numbered. His solo career began with Heartbreaker (2000) but news of his doings filtered out in magazines such as No Depression some years before that release. Heartbreaker is a gorgeous recording and contains two of his best songs “Oh My Sweet Carolina” and “Come Pick Me Up”, songs which are always requested when he performs live.

It was Gold in 2001 that really reignited my obsession. I played that CD every day for months and still experience a surge of joy every time I hear it, the songs have become so well loved and ingrained in my psyche. I can imagine myself as a little old lady in a nursing home still playing Gold. No easy-listening classics for this old lady!

Seeing Ryan Adams perform live in January 2002 almost put me off. My first impression of him in person was - what a slob! Somehow, his music overcame that reaction. I went to another live show last year and really loved it and Adams himself looked very dapper. My review of the show is here.

It’s his voice and the way he sings that really affects me. I know of no other artist who can sing with such sincerity words such as “when black arrows shot out your bleeding heart?” or with convincing heartbreak, the words “over” or “lose”. He uses his voice in amazing ways. His latest CD 29 is brilliant as an example of expressive vocals. Singers do like to sing certain words, I believe, just as guitarists like certain notes or riffs. This is so with Adams

Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead has described his voice thus:

“…he has about nine hundred voices that he can use like a Bene Gesserit…”

The comparison of Ryan Adams voice with that of a Bene Gesserit is quite apt in a way. If you don’t recognise the Bene Gesserit reference it refers to a sisterhood in the Dune books who - “are trained in the use of their voice (it is always capitalized "the Voice" in the novels) to compel obedience in listeners on a subconscious level. By controlling the subtleties of her voice, a Bene Gesserit can speak to a person's unconscious mind, commanding it in a way that the conscious mind is aware of, but cannot resist” (from Wikipedia).

Originally the darling of the alt country magazine set, Ryan has managed to alienate the press over the past few years. He attracts sensationalism - not a bad way to draw attention to himself. He released three CDs last year, all quite different – Cold Roses (country rock), Jacksonville City Nights (country) & 29 (solo acoustic). I loved them all and thought every other 2006 release paled into insignificance by comparison.

I am not alone in my obsession...

The Ryan Adams fan base is an interesting one. Comprising roughly equal numbers of males & females, both young and old, it can also be divided into three separate groups. There are the fans who wish Whiskeytown was still going, there are those who prefer the Gold type of music – glorious rootsy rock, and there are the Heartbreaker mob who pine after sweet & sad balladry. Ryan Adams caters to all three groups. He has a vast catalogue of songs, many unreleased. The unreleased songs are as good, if not better than the official releases. The word used most often to describe Adams’ output – and it is overused – is “prolific”. The interesting thing about this prolificity is the high quality of the songwriting. It’s not all that surprising that Adams released 3 albums last year. He could do it again this year and still have songs left over as he is writing new songs all the time. NB: He has lately advised that three new albums are in the works for release over the next 12 months.

The only one of his albums I didn’t like all that much – in fact I only listened to it once – is
Rock N Roll. There is story behind how it came to be. Adams’ label Lost Highway took objection to the album Adams was planning to release in 2003 titled Love Is Hell. Lost Highway’s beef was that it was too depressing. Adams in defiance self produced Rock N Roll in a very short time and obviously made a deal with Lost Highway – officially release Rock N Roll and allow Love Is Hell to be released as well, in two EPs. Love Is Hell is the superior of the 2003 releases. It is full of sad introspective songs, but quite exquisite melodically and lyrically. Adams rarely plays any of the songs from Rock N Roll in his live shows these days - it remains an anomaly. Uncharacteristically sloppy in production, the songs lack depth, though there are some in the fan-base who would disagree. Of course I really should listen to it again sometime. I may have misjudged it.

Part and parcel with my obsession, I take quite an interest in the career of Ryan Adams and pleasureably anticipate his next release. As long as it’s not another Rock N Roll I’ll be quite happy. You certainly can’t call Ryan Adams’ music boring. He can sing any type of music, is a hummingbird dipping into diverse musical genres, wearing his musical influences on his sleeve. His interpretations of other artists’ songs are stunning, for instance his shimmering version of the Oasis tune “Wonderwall”.

I can’t leave out mentioning the predominant fan site,, or more particularly the .org message board, which is basically the only thing on the site worth reading. As fan sites go, the .org is one of the most interesting and lively that I have ever come across. It’s constantly on the go and, although I never post myself, I read it daily to follow the obsessions of all the .org board regulars and to catch up on the gossip. The tone of the board is characterised by a witty cynicism. No soppy stuff here, though posts by the man himself (if he does post) cause wild speculation. Later note: Ryan has recently become a frequent poster and even goes so far as to answer questions asked of him by the fans.

As one poster recently said: “Ryan's music aside, I come here because I love the community of the .org. We laugh, cry, fight, make up, get drunk, have in-depth conversations about things which alternate between the ultimate in depth and meaning and complete hilarious nonsense...we're like a big online family. With plenty of weird uncles.”

It is obvious, from reading comments made by Adams himself, that music, and the production of it, is his life’s calling. One can sense this in his recordings and when he performs live. I think he is a genius – cranky, eccentric and hard to grasp, but a genius nonetheless. Though not recognized as such, Ryan Adams is up there with the greats of Rock N Roll.

Here’s a verse from one of his songs, “September”, which demonstrates his skill as a songwriter. It is heartbreakingly poignant and has a vivid pictorial quality to it. Ryan Adams vocals express, without being mawkish, the inherent tragedy contained the lyrics.

The words:
“Laura lays on the foot of the bed
Mimics a noose with the telephone cord
Doctor’s on the phone
And she hangs up and says,
"I ain't never gonna see the winter again"
Then, I don't know how, but she smiles”

September, September

Click here to listen to Ryan singing the words. (mp3)

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