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Published: 2003/11/28
by Karl Kukta

Rock N Roll – Ryan Adams

Lost Highway 137602

I can understand why some people hate Ryan Adams. Not only does his bad-boy
rock-star schtick reek of nostalgia-for-decadent-yesterdays, he also makes
sure that everyone knows that he's staged the whole thing…sorta. Adams
bemoans being under the microscope of the music media but chooses to express
this only after focusing the same media's microscope back onto himself and
giving them something to write about. Fearing media backlash, he gave Elton
John a hard time for the support (read: good press) John tossed Adams'
way — and yet, of course, the only reason you or I know this is because he
made the comment within proximity of the media. It doesnt take a genius to
recognize that the Ryan Adams extravaganza is fundamentally an act of
self-promotion. Perpetuating the interest.

With this in mind, yeah, it makes sense that, in a culture that gives us US
Weekly, Entertainment Tonight, Good Day Live, Where Are They Now?, and
reunion shows, a few weak-stomached individuals are going to want to vomit
any time they see/hear some entertainer revealing how difficult life as a
public figure is — specifically his life; wait, can I rephrase that?
As far as the way they manipulate the media, Ryan Adams and Sharon Osborne
are as good as kinfolk.

And yet all of this is strictly biographical criticism, unnecessary context,
and it shouldnt have anything to do with the way we respond to his music.
But it always inevitably does. And the specific reason it does is that Adams
makes sure to lay the context in our palm; he perpetuates not only his
celebrity, but also (and just as importantly, if not more so) his artistry.
His music and his image: calculatingly self-conscious and portentous —
self-mythologizing, if you will.

A few weeks ago, Adams simultaneously released a new LP, Rock n Roll,
and the first of a two-part EP, Love is Hell. The latter (in its
complete form) was originally slated to be the true follow-up to Adams' 2001
breakthrough Gold (with 2002’s Demolition functioning
similarly to Beck's Stereopathic Soul Manure), but Lost Highway
Records took a pass after getting their first listen of the disc. And with
good reason: the album is Adams' tribute to mope-rock, the emo before there
was Emo, and Lost Highway is an alt-country label.

So Adams, being the prolific composer and recorder that he is, went back
into the studio and cut Rock n Roll. And Lost Highway decided to give
life to Love is Hell, albeit in a different format. What is most
unique about the first installment (and, Im guessing, the entire project)
is that Adams reigns in his eclecticism and works with one sound: the sound
of sorrow. The failed-love narrative "Political Scientist" and
encounter-with-death in "Afraid Not Scared" recall Gold's "SYLVIA PLATH" and
"Goodnight Hollywood Boulevard" and draw the listener into a gray and cloudy
soundscape. A solo performance of Oasis's "Wonderwall" shows that Adams can
not only copy with class, he can also cover with credibility. Love is
Hell Pt. 1 requires (and provides) tranquility, and it gives further
support to the notion that Adams can work convincingly, and at length,
within any genre you throw at him.

Rock n Roll, meanwhile, is a disc worth of testosterone-fueled tracks
that, chronologically, do pick up where Gold left off. The influence (or
ripping-off, depending on where you stand) of Van Morrison, the Stones,
Elton John and other 70's artists on his tunes has been succeeded by the
appropriation of styles from the last two decades. Here a grunge, there a
new wave, everywhere a man who wants to be saved.

There's an implicit syllogism running through Rock n Roll: rock stars
sing about love, sex and drugs; "Im singing about love, sex and drugs;
therefore, I am a rock star." Whether Adams is daydreaming about getting
high with his absent love in "Wish You Were Here," playing Mr. Sensitivity
in order to get laid in "Anybody Wanna Take Me Home," or griping about
superficiality in "Burning Photographs," the songs on Rock n Roll are
nearly always acting as both rock history Cliff's Notes and brushstrokes
from a larger self-portrait. The skill is in Adams' ability to define
himself through rock history (of which he is a superb student). The problem
is that Adams so blatantly invokes rock stereotypes that he again invites
the response that he's playing games with us, and that at the center is a
big gaping hole where a heart should be. When he sings, "pretty pictures in
a magazine, everybody is so make believe, it's true," we hear the rock
star-as-outsider commenting on the vacuousness of life, as well as the
ironic confession that the singer is submitting to the same crime. If there
were only one instance of this, we might be inclined to accept the
confession at face-value; but Rock n Roll is teeming with such
ambiguities, and not all of them are as subtle as the one above.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine presents the option of seeing Rock n Roll as
an "album [that] delivers the illusion of rock & roll instead of the real
thing." In other words, it's mimicry, fraud, a phony. And yet it does
deliver. Nary a song here fails to provide some sort of emotional
connection, something to sing with when youre drunk or looking for a
jump-start, and the album never succumbs to stylistic repetition. Were
Adams not such a skillful songwriter, merely a talented magician/publicist,
then critics wouldn't get so worked up over him. No, the true illusion of
Rock n Roll is that the album is an illusion. By backing up his
self-mythologizing with memorable (if not original) songs, Adams resists
being deified and/or demonized within the rock community. Rock n
Roll isnt either an illusion or the real thing; it's both at the same
time. To say otherwise is to miss the postmodern joke: Everything is real.
Everything is fake. In the title track, which is also the least rocking
number on the disc, Adams sings, "Everybody's cool playing rock n roll. I
don't feel cool at all." Of course you don't, Ryan. Like hell you don't,
Ryan.

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