All that Glitters is not Always Gold
Here’s a Good Song You May Never Hear Again…
Apparently, the lesson we should all take from Ryan Adams is that his records aren’t finished until they’re in our hands—and even then there’s no guarantee he won’t revisit the songs later. Adams was seemingly born with his creative floodgates wedged wide open, and a lot of songs are consequently languishing in unreleased obscurity. He seems hell-bent on leaving this earth with more unreleased songs than Prince, Neil Young, and Bruce Springsteen combined. Whiskeytown’s elegant swan song, Pneumonia, was supposed to be a double album, but half its songs disappeared along the way. Likewise, Gold was supposed to be two discs, but isn’t. Gold has been out a scant month, and supposedly Adams has already finished his Replacements-fueled Pinkhearts record, as well as another solo record, 48 Hours.
His live shows traditionally contain songs that were written the night before, or even on the spot. Adams is so susceptible to the creative impulse that he reportedly once stopped in mid-set to explore an idea that popped into his head, and was assaulted by an irate fan for his trouble. In the face of such output, the question ultimately becomes: is all of it any good?
Wobbling on the Shoulders of Giants
Part of that productivity stems from the fact that Adams is a musical sponge, and much like a bedroom-bound 16-year-old, he apparently tries to dissect and master any song or style that catches his fancy. Ironically, this wasn’t so evident during his Whiskeytown youth, when he certainly tinkered with some alt-country boundaries, but never to the point where the band’s sound got lost. If “Dancing with the Women at the Bar” had roots in Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon”, you certainly couldn’t tell it on a casual listen. When Adams spread his solo wings on Heartbreaker, he bared all the influences that had been bubbling underneath. More than anything else, Heartbreaker revealed a deep Dylan fetish, both in Adams’s spry arrangements and his sometimes hyperverbal lyrics.
Gold goes one step farther in constructing a shrine to Adams’s idols. A quick, cynical interpretation might be that the Ryan Adams we know is nowhere to be found on this record. As it turns out, he’s there, but you have to look really hard. The stylistic mix is dizzying, from Dylanesque odes to Motown soul, but more than that, Adams’s influences are so prominent that you often feel like you’re listening to other people. “New York, New York” starts off like The Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man”, “Answering Bell” and “The Rescue Blues” strain under the weight of The Band, while “Tina Toledo’s Street Walkin’ Blues” hitches a ride on a variant of Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” riff before wallowing in heavy Rolling Stones blooze. Nearly every song on Gold has a portion that could be mistaken for someone else.
Compounding the problem is the emergence of yet another vocal style (Adams already has several). Gold is steeped in a winsome falsetto, which Adams often uses in a way that suggests Edith Piaf or Nina Simone rather than the scruffy troubadour of the heart we’ve gotten used to. The Westerbergian whisper of the soul that anchored so much of Adams’s earlier work is in short supply here, replaced by an often overly dramatic vocal delivery that threatens to sabotage songs from within.
Goin’ Coast to Coast
Despite these stylistic shifts, the album is certainly fueled by recent events in Adams’s life. Gold is (very) loosely autobiographical in that it starts off in New York and ends up on Hollywood Boulevard, reflecting the traveling shoes that Adams has worn the last few years. After moving to Nashville and bonding with folks like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (2 collaborations show up on Gold: “Enemy Fire” and “Touch, Feel, & Lose”), Adams picked up stakes and moved to New York, where he found a significant relationship that colors many of his recent songs. From there, it was on to Los Angeles, a place that inspires far more ambivalence than his adopted home of New York. “New York, New York”, which encapsulates much of Heartbreaker‘s regret while adding a renewed sense of purpose, is nothing short of an unabashed love letter to the city. “Goodnight, Hollywood Blvd.”, on the other hand, trades in disturbing imagery like “I do this all in time to the music / that dances like fools set on fire / flailing their arms in a / room full of whores.” Not hard to tell where he’d rather be.
In between, there are some good songs. “Firecracker” is a rollicking piece of harmonica-laced roots rock where Adams proclaims “everybody wants to go forever / I just want to burn out hard and bright.” “When the Stars Go Blue” is restrained and lovely. “Sylvia Plath” (as in “I wish I had a Sylvia Plath”) is strong enough to survive the Adams falsetto, and its sweet, daydreamy feel is unlike anything else Adams has released. “Tina Toledo’s Street Walkin’ Blues” argues that maybe the Stones should let Adams write a few of their songs next time around - Jagger and company haven’t laid down anything this greasy in years. “Wild Flowers” gracefully moves back and forth between lonely pining and a gentle loping feel. “Touch, Feel, & Lose” is a nifty combination of Tom Petty rootsiness and Al Green fervor. In the midst of many so-so songs, there is indeed gold to be found.
Ironically, the best songs may be on the bonus disc that accompanies Gold‘s first pressing, presumably songs that Adams felt weren’t up to snuff or which didn’t fit the mood of Gold. They’re certainly the most faithful to the traditional Adams/Whiskeytown vibe, which may be why they’re relegated to also-ran status. “Sweet Black Magic” is a lighthearted banjo-picked back porch ode to getting high. “Rosalie Come and Go” and “Cannonball Days” are both uptempo story songs, while “The Fools We are as Men” (a delicate, hushed mandolin-tinged number) and “The Bar is a Beautiful Place” find Adams in his well-worn, lonely patch of the night. Of these, “The Bar is a Beautiful Place” probably best merges Adams’s classic themes with a decidedly New York feel (the song’s sax and trumpet coda wouldn’t be out of place on a Springsteen song like “Meeting across the River”).
Overall, though, Gold feels like a record hiding behind masks. Maybe Adams has spent so many years laying his heart out on the line that he’s trying to create a little distance. In some cases, especially on the uptempo numbers, that works just fine. However, the album’s surprisingly minimalist lyrics and derivative arrangements make it stronger on vibe than actual content. Adams recently complained that he’s sick of himself and sick of being deep, and Gold may very well be his respite from that, exercising his inner music geek rather than his soul. Or maybe he’s just trying to say what he needs to say without revealing as much as in the past. Whatever the case, most of Gold lacks the universality and the heart-wrenching beauty of much of Adams’s earlier work.