Ryan Adams is one of my favourite solo artists. A prolific songwriter and openly tortured soul, he’s virtually done it all and the guy’s barely turned forty. An alt-country legend as the front man of Whiskeytown and The Cardinals, he’s equally at home as a sneering rock star, heavy metal thrasher or sensitive balladeer.
With an incredible seventeen records under his belt, there is much to discover in his varied canon. Unusually for me it’s his most commercial long player that resonates the most. A sixteen song opus that transformed him from a largely cult concern into a Grammy-nominated artist with an international audience.
The first time I saw Gold on the shelves I had no idea who Ryan Adams was, or even that the record was called Gold due to its ambiguous cover. With no title or artist name to be seen, there’s merely a shot of twenty seven year old Adams, his face partially hidden as he poses awkwardly in front of a giant U.S. flag
Unashamedly setting out to craft a modern American classic, he announces his intentions straight from the off with the sweeping opening track New York, New York. A breezy, romantic love letter to The Big Apple, it was the right song at exactly the right time for a nation reeling from the recent 9/11 attacks.
The prevailing air of positivity seeps into Firecracker, a harmonica-laced rush of strummed guitars and throw caution to the wind exclamations of love. Ryan is happy!
But as with all Adams records things don’t stay peachy for long. ‘‘Oh girl I wish I knew you well’’ he wails on Answering Bell, while the sorrowful La Cienega Just Smiled bemoans a misery caused by heartbreak and boozing. ‘‘One breaks my body and the other breaks my soul’’.
He hits rock bottom on Harder Now That It’s Over, declaring ‘‘I wish you would’ve grabbed the gun and shot me cause I died’’. Few artists dare to be as emotionally direct as Ryan Adams, and this tale of hurled drinks, bruised wrists and sleazy pawn shops is as warts-and-all as it gets.
Cleverly though the doom and gloom is spread out and elsewhere he seems content simply trying on different musical hats. Brooding grunge on Enemy Fire and Nobody Girl. The southern gospel R&B of Touch, Feel Lose. Foot-stomping haystack rock with Tina Toledo’s Street Walkin’ Blues, a song so in debt to Sticky Fingers era Rolling Stones it must have had Keith Richards and co scrambling to check whether they’d perhaps written it themselves.
Amid the bluster there are also touching moments of restraint on the gentle and pining Wild Flowers Grow, the soulful piano-laden Rescue Blues, while When The Stars Go Blue became such a candle-waving standard it was eventually butchered into mediocrity by the likes of Bono and The Corrs.
What surprises me the most about my love for this album is that unlike any of my other top 20 records I consider it an inherently flawed piece of work. Clocking in at over seventy minutes it’s overlong and more than a little self-indulgent. A few songs creep dangerously close to middle-of-the-road dad-rock and stylistically he’s all over the place, with some detractors going as far to brand him a man with an identity crisis.
But Ryan Adams is the kind of maverick talent you rarely see anymore. He does what he pleases, trying this, having a go at that and putting it all out there whatever the result. A man who wears his heart and influences on his sleeve, for whom the words ‘‘quality control’’ literally mean nothing. His brilliant debut album Heartbreaker may be more concise, Jacksonville City Nights might boast a clearer musical vision and Rock n Roll undoubtedly packs more of a hipster punch. But for me it’s Gold that best showcases Ryan Adams as an ambitious yet effortless talent. A complex but accessible artist with a restless spirit. A songwriter tour de force.
Choice Quote: ‘‘Gold was supposed to be a double album but they took the last five songs and made it a bonus disc and put it on the first hundred and fifty thousand copies. Fucking my fans over and making them pay extra for a record I wanted to be a double album’’. – Ryan Adams.
Choice Lyric: ‘‘I was trying to make you angry but I didn’t feed you to the cops. When I threw that drink in that guy’s face it was just to piss you off’’. – From Harder Now That it’s Over.
Like this? Check out his debut album Heartbreaker (2000)