November 6, 2008

… And Ryan Adams Is Tattooed on My Chest

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Dear Ryan Adams,
I’m writing you, sir, to request that you send me a signed headshot, preferably from 2005 when your hair was grown out and you wore little black glasses. I have an appointment to be tattooed and am going to get my tattoo of the materials you send me — most likely on my right breast. I hope that’s alright with you.
You see, my enduring love peaked this week after you released Cardinology, which I consider to be not only the best record of the year, but perhaps the crowning musical achievement of the past century.
Thank you,

* * *
Dear Reader,
Let me explain my praise and accolades.
First, you’ve got to understand Ryan Adams. It would be nothing new to begin by describing Ryan Adams’ pendulous temperament. Or by reciting his reckless behavior, his inexhaustible output or his turbulent and totally sporadic vibe, for that matter. When it comes to Ryan Adams, everybody writes about these things.
As an example, it’s easy to remember the time he posted intergalactic raps onto his website — the site took on a 1984 Macintosh 128K-meets-Star Trek theme as he spat rhymes like, “I could destroy galaxies of alternative country wannabees / With a bottle of whiskey.” These tracks were paired with heavy metal jams, all presumably made on Garage Band.
But there’s also the time he fell off the stage in Liverpool and broke his wrist. I think he was on speedballs or something. In The Times he was quoted as saying, “I snorted heroin a lot — with coke. I did speedballs every day for years. And took pills. And then drank. And I don’t mean a little bit. I always outdid everybody.”
I’m not asking you to look past these hiccups. Rather, I urge you to embrace them. You see, Adams would be nothing without these wild oscillations of temperament and sporadic outbursts of both creative and destructive energy.
Certainly, the man has had his highs and his lows — physically and mentally and otherwise. Equally, his music has also had its ups and downs. He has released 10 albums in eight years, of which some have been amazing and others have been near-duds.
It is probably Adams’s unmitigated temperament and ultra-prolific output that leads critics to believe that the music is inseparable from the man. Inspired peaks alongside tragic lows mark both Adams’ large catalogue and the events in his life.
Recently, Joshua Love, a Pitchfork Media critic wrote, “Adams really doesn’t seem capable of imagining a world outside of himself anymore, and it’s his greatest artistic downfall.” In Love’s opinion, Adams’s self-absorption is his fatal flaw, and he concludes that “[the music] even at its best is exactly only as compelling as Adams himself is compelling.”
But that’s the thing: to me, Adams is compelling. Adams is not compelling because he invents weird sounds or plays strange, new chords. Instead, Adams is compelling because he is a complex, temperamental and scattered musician. He’s a flawed person and an imperfect singer and songwriter. He can be amazing at some moments and horrible at others. Adams is compelling precisely because his musical ups and downs mirror those in his life. So when Adams makes a bad song, I still love it, just because it’s he who made it. I like it when he writes a bad song, because it’s kind of like an adorable little mistake.
The Times film critic Manhola Dargis recently wrote, “Heart isn’t usually part of the discussion when we talk about movies, partly, I imagine, because it sounds too corny.” And she’s right. What would it even mean to assess the amount of “heart” in a movie? And, for that matter, how much “heart” went into a song?
But what I talk about when I talk about Ryan Adams is exactly that — heart.
There are endless criteria one can use to determine the success of a song: innovative chords, keys and time signatures, creative lyrics and progressive performance. But I don’t really care about that stuff. Because when Ryan Adams writes a good song, it just doesn’t get any better. It just couldn’t feel any better.
In a larger sense, perhaps we shouldn’t always judge music based on its “heart.” But when it comes to Ryan Adams, I certainly do. And it’s not only that I think Adams has plenty of heart, but that he has totally stolen mine.
I think Cardinology, his most recent release, is unbelievable. It reflects all the waves of his diverse career: both the progression and the setbacks. It reaches near perfect moments that recall and then move beyond the best of his past. It also hits some middle-range moments that only work with an acceptance of his personality. In the end, I don’t actually think Cardinology is the high-point of all music from the past century. But I do believe that it is really, really great.