With about a month before the release of Ryan Adams’ first new album since the unimpressive Cardinals team up, “Cardinology,” I think it’s well worth looking back at the album that truly initiated Ryan’s solo career almost exactly ten years ago, “Gold.”
While his technical first (and still best) solo album was “Heartbreaker,” “Gold” often gets the “first” label, I guess because it was released after his former band, Whiskeytown, had officially disbanded.
Though it is Ryan’s most successful album (as far as units shifted) and probably has his only true radio hit in opening track, “New York, New York,” the album was met with mixed reviews upon release and was considered a bit of a disappointment from the label’s perspective who clearly wanted to position Ryan as THE singer/songwriter of the 21st century. With a nifty backstory that included dropping out of high school and forming one of the most popular alt-Country acts of the previous decade (and recording an unofficial first solo album that had garnered huge critical love), it certainly seemed like Ryan was on the verge of being the next big thing.
But then “Gold” hardly made a cultural dent, never even achieving Gold status (500,000 copies sold) in the US.
It isn’t really fair to judge an album by sales, though. Artistic success has never (rightly) been measured in dollars. Nor should the album be pigeonholed by the reviews of the time that seemed more obsessed with the album cover and production value than the actual songs on display.
Ryan has always been an artist whose antics off and on the stage have been able to distract from the music among those who want a reason to write him off. On the other hand, his fans are a devoted bunch (myself included), and so it can be hard to find an objective appreciation of the songs.
Here, I’m going to try:
“New York, New York” is the first song I (and most people) ever heard from Ryan, and that’s largely because of the (un)fortunate timing of its release, post-9/11 with a video that pretty much served as a love note to the city which ended with a shot of the Two Towers. It couldn’t have been more perfectly timed if it had been planned, and yet it didn’t feel exploitative. (It helped that the video ended with a postscript explaining that it had been filmed days before the attack.)
But separated from that weighty context, the song is still one of the best pop songs in Ryan’s catalog, a kind of cathartic release after the heartbreak of his appropriately titled previous solo album. Its upbeat shuffle is the exact opposite of “Heartbreaker” standouts “Oh My Sweet Carolina” and “Come Pick Me Up,” yet it feels like a natural progression from their pain to that high you feel when the final vestiges of a bad relationship fall off.
When Ryan sings, “Love don’t play any games with me like she did before,” it doesn’t feel sad, it sounds relieved. And then he caps it all with the all important, “I still love you New York.” Like another classic Ryan’s song, “Dear Chicago,” the city is probably a stand in for a girl, but it’s just as easy to listen to it as a song about the city, and in that way, it’s an absolutely fitting tribute to a city worth loving.
It would be easy for the album to drop off immediately after that opener, but “Firecracker” thankfully opens with the always welcome harmonica and includes one of Ryan’s best choruses:
“Everybody wants to go forever
I just want to burn off hard and bright
I just want to be your firecracker
And maybe be your baby tonight.”
That sums up twenty-something romance about as perfectly as I can imagine. Admittedly, the song is a bit crowded with instruments. There exists a stripped down version on the unreleased “The Suicide Handbook” double album that displays how the song could have been another “Heartbreaker” winner, but like “New York, New York,” this version feels like an exuberant release, and every post-break-up malaise needs a post-post-break-up rebirth. This is the sound of being born again.
“Answering Bell” is probably where the overproduction shows itself the most. I personally don’t side with those people who think music must sound like it was recorded in a garage to feel “real,” but when the banjo on the track sounds like a computer programmed instrument, you’ve gone too far. Despite that, the song is still a solid number. The version on “The Suicide Handbook” definitely bests the official release, maintaining the jauntiness of the song without the glaring production value.
It’s pretty much impossible for me to separate my personal associations from “La Cienega Just Smiled” in order to objectively talk about its value. I love this song. It hits me in the right place, and even though there is, again, another version of this song that strips it to its barest bones, I’m still partial to this lovely album version that manages to be both propulsive and tranquil. “How did I end up feeling so bad for such a little girl?” is the root of this song, and it’s the question that will keep a guy up all night. Heartbreaking love. Damn, it makes me hurt.
“The Rescue Blues” has been on at least one television soundtrack, so it’s perhaps the second most exposed song from this album. This song works better live, as it can feel more bluesy which is exactly what it needs. Another track that probably earns its “Overproduced” label, the song itself shouldn’t be faulted (I actually like it), but I can understand those who would find it grating (especially the odd gospel choir at the end).
“Somehow, Someday,” is one of the more countrified tracks on the album (musically and vocally), but with its glossy sheen and the overzealous refrain of “There ain’t no way I’ll ever stop from loving you now,” it could just as easily have been written and sung by any of a dozen anonymous country pop singers. A perfectly pleasant song, but subpar for Ryan. Dirty it up a bit, and you could really have something here.
Most people who have heard “When The Stars Go Blue” have heard a cover by any number of artists (mostly country). My first exposure to it was the VH1 video of The Corrs with Bono covering it, and I had no idea Ryan was the original composer. It’s a romantic, shuffling piece and I do believe that his original version is the best, but I have to admit that even knowing he wrote it, it still doesn’t sound like a Ryan Adams song. I guess this was him going for the crossover hit, and in a way he kind of succeeded. You could probably get laid to this song pretty easily.
Oh, “Nobody Girl.” This song just goes on and on. In his entire catalog, Ryan has very few songs that go beyond six minutes (and most of them are on oddity album, “29”). Is this song good? Yes. Is it nearly ten minutes good? Eh. This was probably our first hint that Ryan had a real love for Grateful Dead-esque guitar noodling, and the song wouldn’t lose anything by being cut in half. But, you know what? When I’m in the mood I’m kinda glad this song is King Sized because this is Ryan at his most vindictive, and that makes for a fun ride.
“Sylvia Plath” is Ryan being morbid and weird (an especially striking contrast to “Nobody Girl”), and this album is better for it. After listening to his description in this song, how could you not wish you had a Sylvia Plath? She sounds like the worst best date you’d ever have. Imagine Tom Waits singing this song and you’ll know exactly what Ryan was going for here. And I think he mostly pulls it off. Every guy should have a Sylvia Plath in his life, just once.
Ugh, “Enemy Fire.” This is easily my most skipped track on this album. By now, we fans all know that Ryan has a hard-on for metal and hard rock, so it’s no surprise that occasionally he wants to rock out. But the results are very rarely satisfying, and this is probably his weakest attempt. It’s just a slog of a song with a vocal performance that sounds like parody. Perhaps the problem is that he doesn’t commit to the conceit. Here he is grunging up his sound, and then he has sweet, backing harmony vocals. Whatever he was going for, it doesn’t work. Skip.
And then a complete 180 with “Gonna Make You Love Me,” a bouncy little love song with Ryan again changing up his vocal performance to fit the song (I don’t think enough is said about how many different vocal stylings Ryan can pull off; some better than others). It’s a short ditty that doesn’t overstay its welcome. That’s faint praise, I guess, but there’s not a lot going on here, so it gets what it gets.
“Wild Flowers” is Ryan back in pretty mode, and after the previous two numbers, it’s a welcome return. This song bridges that gap between mopey ballad and panty-peeler. When those strings come in, you know the eyes are getting wet – well, something is. The version on “The Suicide Handbook” is identical to the official version, which I guess tells you that this is exactly how Ryan heard the song when he wrote it, and it makes sense. It feels fully formed.
“Harder Now That It’s Over” has the tone and anguish of “Heartbreaker” in spades, yet this is definitely a case where the production value would make it sound completely out of place on the earlier album. But that is not a complaint because this song works on “Gold” perfectly and is, for me, one of the strongest tracks on the album. Ryan is at his best when he’s lamenting the end of a relationship (sorry Mandy Moore), and this song encapsulates the beautiful melancholy that he does so well.
Is “Touch, Feel & Lose” overproduced? Sure. But I like this version considerably better than its “Suicide Handbook” counterpart, and frankly, the lyrics are overwrought so why shouldn’t the production match? I can understand people hating on this song, but I’ve always dug it and I personally like how the floating church organ in the background (with the backing vocals) gives this song a hymn-like quality. It’s preposterous and overly sentimental, and it’s Ryan all over.
What the hell is “Tina Toledo’s Street Walkin’ Blues?” I don’t know; you don’t know; Ryan doesn’t know. But he recorded it and put it on an album, and for that we’ll always have this pleasant little headscratcher. Not a great song, not even all that fun of a song, it still manages to win some love with its blasted charm. I should hate this song, but I don’t. And that alone is a victory. Still, six minutes? Ryan, you’re pushing it.
Album closer “Goodnight, Hollywood Blvd” is the archetypal Ryan closer, which is to say, a slow, sweet piece of music that plods along gracefully. The swell of the strings in the background is essentially their own farewell, because after this album, Ryan rarely used them again. A fitting close for this album: A bit over the top, but pretty enough to win you over.
This album is unquestionably frontloaded, but with quite a few little charmers on the back end to make listening to the whole album a rewarding experience. It’s clear that Ryan was attempting to hit all the marks with this album to showcase his versatility and prove straight out the gate that he could be an all around performer. In fact, what this album proved (and his career of albums has substantiated) is that Ryan excels in the pop-alt-country arena but doesn’t quite have the renaissance music man ability he imagines.
A special note about “Side 4”: There was a bonus disc that came with some early copies of “Gold.” Ryan initially wanted to release a double album (no surprises there) but his label balked at the idea (no surprises there). So these extra 5 songs were put on a bonus disc.
The 5 songs, “Rosalie Come and Go,” “The Fools We Are As Men,” “Sweet Black Magic,” “The Bar is a Beautiful Place,” and “Cannonball Days” are uniformly solid tracks and probably would have been favorites if included on the official album. That said, “The Bar is aBeautiful Place” is really the only true classic in the bunch, which is fitting since it’s Ryan in his wheelhouse, a drunken ballad about love and loss and drinking.
If you didn’t get the version of the album with “Side 4,” you definitely missed out. Blame the label.
*If you look at the songlisting on the back album cover, you can see that it is broken up into 4 sides. If you took Sides 1, 3 and 4, leaving out Side 2, you’d pretty much have a classic album. Interesting what a playlist can do.*