I was reading through my book (Darkness, Racket and Twang - Essential Listening from the Fringes of Popular and Unpopular Music), as the ego demands frequently of a guy who has just one book out, and noticed I have written a lot about Ryan Adams. My first thought was maybe I should write a book about Ryan Adams and sublet his mild controversy and ultimate bookshelf appeal... got a third of the material already down but then I realized that he is a cat I reference more than I actually listen to. None of his records since Rock 'n Roll have taken any hold on me. They aren't bad records, but they weren't ones I got excited about (and I gave Rock 'N Roll a wave-through and I'm not sure I've even listened to Jacksonville City Nights. There are only so many hours in the day) I was torn, thinking he might be our Dylan or Neil Young, a guy that put out some meteoric material (Heartbreaker is required liestening) early on, and then spottily, tangentially pierced that bubble of brilliance for 20 albums after that, but mostly bouncing right off the surface.
Then I heard Easy Tiger.
It's a record I'd given up waiting on. It is glorious, gold-hued, and even markedly commercial, and it totally works. At 39 minutes, it is a concise tart of majestic country-something rock. I should start at the beginning, but in the 50 times I've listened to this record in the past week, I always fast forward to track 4 - the anthem "Halloween Head." It sounds like a cinema version of a Grand Ole Opry moment, that bright light blinding a singer as he sweats out gold. It's got those lazy lyrics like "Here comes that shit again..." And "what the fuck's wrong with me... and "I got a bad idea again..." that he can deliver so perfectly, but the real brilliant moment comes at 1:26 when he has the gall to swagger "Guitar solo!" and follow it with one. I don't know why this resonates with me so much. I played this for some friends during an hour-long drive this past weekend, and we replayed that part four times. Maybe it is about wanting that mythic ego to wash off on us. Maybe he's the only guy to pick up on the real brilliance of Johnny Cash - that corny opens the gate to brilliance when it's done right, I dunno, but it completely works.
The rest of the record skirts close to the intimacy of Heartbreaker while nursing a decided Gram Parsons fetish (especially "Tears of Gold" - it would not surprise me to discover Adams had bought that hotel out in Joshua Tree Forest from which Gram needled off the mortal coil, just to record this song) and the Lifetime movie-ready duet with Sheryl Crow "Two." With Adams and his Nudie suit wearing forbearer, I get the feeling they care more about being in the song than they do being in the game; willing to go places so tender and saccharine that, previously, only George Jones was man enough to walk.
His tangle of words and acoustic styling are in perfect union on "Everybody Knows" and in the Walt Whitman sampler about dissapearance and persistance "Oh My God, Whatever, Etc." saying
If I could I'd fold myself away
Like a card table
Or a concertina or a Murphy bed
I would, but I wasn't made that way
C'mon, that's good stuff. Who knew people actually pay attention to the lyrics they write anymore?
His sense of personal melodrama gets the better of him on the overwrought "The Sun Also Sets" - it's like he's trying to channel Morrissey rather than just namecheck him like he did at the outset of Heartbreaker. His bluegrass leanings are dead-on with "Pearls on a String" the harmonies laying like butter on a biscuit. "These Girls" is a great a talking-country-folk-ego blues with shit like "one Christmas I got a funeral, and they handed me the receipt." And a bunch of "God bless the late night girls" business, reminding me of Conway Twitty's irrepressible sense of self-glory.
The spare instrumentation and falsetto of "Off Broadway" show where Adams' cultural map-pins lay - right off the main stage. He is on the verge of being a household name, but isn't. "I don't know where that is" he sings about a place he's trying to get to, but he's lost among the buildings, and the songs and the fame/lack-of-fame, all twinkling in the same stoner afterglow as his power moment shouting "Guitar Solo!" He's like a bug trapped in amber, furiously trying to flap his way out of that which will preserve him forever, should his fossil ever be discovered years down the line, hidden among a pile of dull rocks.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com