“That Daydream Nation look in your eye” // Ryan Adams – 1989 (Album Review)

Ryan Adams has always had a fondness of covering songs that excited him in just the right way. Hardcore fans might remember how at the beginning of the ‘00s rumors abounded about him covering his former apartment neighbors The Strokes complete debut album Is This It, even though, only an occasional energetized rock version or a stripped-down acoustic live version of Last Nite would see the light of day. During the late Cardinals era, we saw him reimagine various Vampire Weekend songs. His cover of Wonderwall still is one of his most commerically successful released recordings. And most recently, Adams did not only referenced with tongue-in-cheekly to the early jokes about him and Bryan Adams by earnestly covering Run To You, early this year he also took the stage as „Natalie Sass“ as his own support act, covering various songs from Natalie Prass.

Adams usually doesn‘t just reinterpret songs with the help of his artistic and technical means, but his versions usually also capture the way a song hit him and how it somehow echoed something that really spoke to him. You can still feel a piece of the enthusiasm of him being a music fan proclaming excitedly: Damn yes! I found this gem! I know EXACTLY what this artist is talking about! I just could never have put the finger on it quite like this!, and the susequent step, Now, I want to make it mine!. After heavily teasing it for thorough the last few months via studio updates and video snippets, last monday Ryan Adams digitally released his version of Taylor Swifts last years omnipresent pop album 1989, a record that chronologically follows the story of a couple falling in love and breaking up (and dealing with it while being confronted with heavy press attention).

As someone who got popculturally socialised in the 90’s, I’ve had more than just my share of exposure to high gloss mainstream pop productions by Max Martin, one of the main contributors to Swifts 1989 (It’s Gonna Be Me, anymore?). Nevertheless, I never really got comfortable with Taylor Swift as a brand. Her image always seemed too – perfect? professional? business woman? calculating? plain? – in order to see her as someone artistically expressing an authentic feeling.

In consequence, it nagged me even more, that a number of songs from 1989, released almost exactly one year ago, hit quite a note with me – I do have a soft spot for pure, shimmery and professionally produced pop songs. And probably, this is Swifts actual recipe and achievement in general: To disarm elitist music nerds‘ reluctance to identify with the mass appeal of an universally acclamied pop record, and turn their mumbled guilty pleasure confession into unapologetic, hipster-compatible (even rebellious!) fandom. Therefore, it’s funny imagining all the Alt.-Country aficionados only familiar with Adams’ work and Swifts hit singles (including me) finding themselves in a loyality conflict, nervously switching between their two digital folders of 1989, anxiously checking whether their indie guy can actually win this battle.

Bad Blood, released as a teaser last Friday, was a disapponitment: Adams’ arrangement felt strangely plain, sterile and polished, comparable to his own Easy Tiger-era. The inherently repetitive (as in: monotonous), winched chorus melody really doesn’t help, either. Fortunately, this is not representative for the whole record – on the contrary.

Even though Adams stays inside of his repertoire comfort zone for the whole record (guitar-based singer-songwriter / Alternative Country / Indie pop/rock with a clear flirt for 80’s Punk/ Rock dramaturgy), he still comes up with a surprising variety of diverse re-arrangements for these songs:

Welcome To New York, whose original I appreciated for capturing so perfectly the open-minded excitement and antsy curiosity of a fresh start, is now transformed into a muscled wink to Springsteens cowboy stance with its string intro, deep vocals, bold guitar chords and a keyboard solo, resulting in a close tie in comparison.

Blank Space gets the stripped-to-the-bones-treatment, where only the fingerpicked guitar chord patterns and a few restrained string accents accompany Adams’ tender falsetto, and still the song doesn’t lose anything of it’s catchy grand air.

A palm-muted intro and subsequent roughened strummed chords turn Style into a punk-infused 80’s affair with Adams’ raspy, breathless vocals level out somewehere between defensive-cool hollering and desperate howling, not unsimilar to Jack Whites trademark nag. Funnily, Adams alters Swifts original lyrics you got that James Dean daydream look into Daydream Nation look, which arguably might be considered a sacrilege – to use an allusion to Sonic Youth in a Taylor Swift Cover –, but on the other hand it makes so much sense: Wouldn’t we, just as Ryan Adams, be quite attracted to someone with a Daydream Nation look in his/her eyes, whatever the hell that look would actually look like? In my books, the idea is definitely seductive.

And then there is All You Had To Do Was Stay. While the original is too busy with being another danceable uptempo track with a big uprising hookline, Ryans version takes the desesperation and anger of the title line very seriously, an effect especially achieved through the color of Ryans tense, wrought up voice: His intonation seems to be pleading and accusing at the same time, and the high vocals are just high enough to sound vulnerably shakey, but still firm enough to not yet have to disappear into his head voice, which gives the performance an extraordinary punch of urgency. Definitely the best and most moving song on the record.

Wildest Dreams resembles not without reason Love Is Hell’s track Anybody Wanna Take Me Home, as both songs pay a fanboy’s tribute to Johnny Marrs signature dangleing guitar work in The Smiths. This Love, probably a climax in the albums narrative, reinvigorates the desperate longing and inner demons of Adams’ Sylvia Plath with its hauntedly reverbed piano and falsetto vocals.

Interestingly, Stereogums recent Premature Evaluation of the record reflects on how Adams taking on Swifts songs might be interpreted as an artistic expression itself:

 We’re hearing a sad, lonely middle-aged man attempting to reckon, for maybe the first time, that he’s become a sad, lonely middle-aged man, and using the songs of Taylor Swift as a vehicle to do it. There’s something beautiful about that.

Whereas Stereogums way of putting it appears a bit plain to me, there’s a bit of truth in there: While the emotional subject of Swifts songs might be the reason why Adams could connect to them, his take reflects that the experience of love and loss (and the whole emotional rollercoaster within) might feel differently when made through not for the first time, but just another time. This might also be an explanation for the fact that album closer Clean, that was written by Swift and the amazing Imogen Heap, in Swifts version, much more is a relieved statement of redemption and rebirth, while Adams’ song, especially the vocals, still feels shadowed and exhausted. Thourough the record, Adams’ sound has a broader pallette of colors and adds a new depth, but also a fleshier sound to the former very light, very monotonous rhythm-orientated 90’s Boygroup sound design that predominates the original 1989.

Whereas releasing a cover album of one of the most successful records of last year certainly is a career move your manager would embrace, the whole project still feels convinceable to me. As both Adams and Swift share a certain sense of open-mindedness, of not letting outside classifications blur their judgement, the idea of Ryan wholeheartedly excited, playing around with these jams is an image that seems pretty much in character for him (if you need a reminder: he’s a pinball lunatic, obsessive cat content poster, enthusiastic comic nerd, and infamously performing in the same denim jacket with only the black t-shirt of some 80‘s hardcore / punk / metal band changing occasionally, etc.)

So, in many ways, this record at the same time is the confirmation and the falsification of the old rule: A good song is a good song is a good song. And still there’s so much power and variation in how to colour the central sentiment of a songwriters work. And at the end of the day, albeit age and sex differences, there still might be more similarities between an 20 year old girl and a 40 year old guy suffering from severe heartbreak.

Listen to a release day interview with Ryan Adams on Zane Lowe’s Beats 1 Show with Taylor Swift calling in here.

Ryan Adams – 1989 is out now digitally. A physical release is expected for later this year.

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“I wanna hear human beings doing human being things” // Ryan Adams on digital recording and editing

ryan_gsgThe first option of any computer – I’m not speaking against computers because I think that they’re wonderful and they make a lot of sense – but for creative purposes a computer is a digital mirror. And the first option in any creative program that I’ve ever seen, that Apple has ever made – is to edit. You take a photograph – the first thing it asks you if you wanna do is: Do you wanna change the light and shadow? Do you wanna highlight something? Do you wanna turn it into black and white? In all the recording technologies to me the first thing that I see is your ability to manipulate the actual moment.

My feeling is we’re these spirits living in these human being bodies and we’re so perfectly errored, but some of those errors are so wonderful!

Somebody played the Blues too fast once on electric guitar – and they invented Rock’n’Roll!
It’s because they were probably on cocaine, but you know what? We got Chuck Barrie and Little Richard!

I wanna hear that! I wanna hear human beings doing human being things.

(Ryan Adams – Interview @ WNYC Soundcheck, New York Public Radio, Sept. 10th, 2014)

Ryan Adams – I Just Might: On Dealing with Anxiety

quadr_ijustmightSince 2005, the US-American Singer/Songwriter Ryan Adams from Jacksonville, NC has suffered from an inner ear condition called Ménière’s disease. The symptoms of this disorder can include affected hearing, nausea, vertigo and balance disturbances. Episodes are triggered by various sensous triggers as bright lights, perception of stress, and certain types of alimentation.

His last, excellent self-titled album includes a song called I Just Might that illustrates very palpably and colourful an individual caught in a state of mind that (subjectively interpreted) might not only be associated to an episode of Ménière’s Disease, but also to the subjective perceptions of a panic attack or other forms of anxiety.

The protagonist of the song describes himself being caught in a dark room with covered windows, but yet in the first line, light begins to enter the room. From the very beginning, this light is connotated as a threat to the protagonist, an omen or preannouncement. (The lights are harsh as they break through the blinds // Shadows on the wall cross my face in black lines) The light from the outside causes the darkness inside.

Similar to a monster coming closer, the light and the associated threat seem to creep up on the protagonist, gradually and inevitabily approaching, (Daylight is so close, i can almost taste it). Becoming aware of this impending doom, the protagonist desperately tries to hold off the feelings emerging inside, with the effect that he has to realize that by his increasing attempts to control them, he even worsens the perceived tension, up to the point where he’s left paralyzed and defenseless (Dunno what to say, dunno what I said (…) Never leave the house, barely leave the room (…) Keep your head down, keep your eyes shut tight (…)). As a consequence, he falls into a state of desperate, resigned disconnection probably comparable to a state of dissociation (I’m free from desire as a rise above the maze).

The song doesn’t leave its protagonist in this hell though, but also offers a hint at what could be the resolve. The lines in the chours beginning with i just might imply that the outburst of the panic and the loss of control are the things the protagonist fears the most, but also, that that’s exactly what is about has to happen (and what the character might be beginning to embrace – i just might). Loosing control is scary, but fighting it even worsens everything, because it increases the tension and therefore augments the suffering.

The whole concept of a progressing deterioration is also reflected in the musical arrangement of the song. The anticipatory anxiety is expressed by very tense, deep played palm-muted notes (guitarists will be familiar to the concept of muting strings at the bottom of their guitar with the palm of the playing hand in order to create a repressed (sic!), deep and rock’y sound). These notes continue through all the song – implying that the impending doom of breaking out is always present, and just the intensity changes. In contrast, the moments where the protagonist is close to actually breaking out are accompanied by open played chords, standing for release, resolve and liberation.

The fact that after the final outburst of this type of music, when the listener thinks the song might already reached his end, the palm-muting notes start all over again. Anxiety or panic is not a singular, isolated experience. It continues to accompany the person in the everyday life – again, and again, and again (the last intonation of i just might in the song gives a hint of how exhausting this process can be). Fighting it will only make it worse. The only solution is to accept it.

tl;dnr
In his song “I Just Might”, Ryan Adams describes a character in a state of desperation. The illustrative and palpable depiction also serves to describe the state of mind of people suffering from panic attacks or other forms of anxiety. The arrangement of the song reflects very well its ideas. Fighting your feelings doesn’t work. Accepting them is hard, but will be the only way to resolve.

To check out the song, you can find a pretty good live version on youtube (though the studio version and the iTunes Festival 2014-version are even better!)

See Ryan talking candidly about his condition in an video interview with Canadian radio station CBC Q in 2012

To find one of the best and most thorough articles about Ryan Adams 2014-2015, go here. <

Ryan Adams & The Shining // Hamburg, Docks // July 1st, 2015

It was my fifth time seeing him (Berlin Kesselhaus ’06 // Berlin Arena Treptow ’07 // London Shepherd’s Bush Empire 2 nights in Sept ’14), so I am familiar with his ways of performing. But still, with this gig I was really amazed / surprised. And I don’t have the slightest clue what it was – was he angry? Enthusiastic? More prepared / more warmed up with the band?

ryan_gsgAnyway – I never have seen him as energetic, as rocking, as impulsive, intense as yesterday night. Not from his appearance / audience talk, but in his playing! So much playful stuff, so many little licks and soli all over the place where they only could fit into a song – taming his guitar, that was between singing and howling, sprawling improvisation… just amazing. Very vital.

And yes, that backbending thing seems to become his signature move. Really great.

ryan_feelslikefireI was really happy with the setlist, too. TWO songs from the 7″ series. Burn In The Night – not sure, whether it was its live premiere, i think it was played before – he introduced it as a new song and that therefore they would fuck it up – which they didn’t. And Blue Light – it is just so hauntingly beautiful, and the guitar playing on that one and its general vibe are so TheSmiths-like… And with Feels Like Fire – I was over the moon. I had heard it from outside the venue being soundchecked, but tried not to get my hopes up too high. And it was flawless.

Except for Oh My Sweet Carolina, Come Pick Me Up and the encore no acoustic guitar. And the encore was pretty spontaneous – the roadies already had begun to clear the stage, the lights had been lit and the music had started, when he returned for a very sweet and calm version of New York, New York.

He’s still not fond of requests though. At one point he responded to a request: You know what? Every time somebody requests a song that is already on the setlist – I strike that song out. 😉 Actually, we do know how to play that song, but you really don’t want to hear that… I think he was referring to NYNY, which he actually did play later on.

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Wow. What a ride. Stay Weird.
Amazing night.

SETLIST
Gimme Something Good
Let It Ride
Stay With Me
Dirty Rain
Burn In The Night (first time ever played live?)
Dear Chicago
This House Is Not For Sale
Peaceful Valley (+ extended jam)
Kim
To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)
When The Stars Go Blue
Shakedown On 9th Street
Feels Like Fire (first time ever played live)
Oh My Sweet Carolina
Blue Light
Nobody Girl
Come Pick Me Up
Magnolia Mountain (+ extended jam)
___________________________
New York, New York (solo acoustic)

tl;dnr
#StayWeird. #StayRyan. #GreatJobRyan. #GreatJobCharlie #BestGigOfTheYear

*all pictures used with kind permission of Babycakees_. Also check out their website Indie.Vidualist.