Love Is Hell, Pt. 1
Love Is Hell, Pt. 2
Rock N Roll
My fantasy Paris Hilton porno tape is a never-ending security cam loop of the bottle-blond heiress working behind the counter of a 7-Eleven. No nudity, no sex — just her ringing up Twinkies and cigarettes and doling out Lottos in grainy black-and-white, humbled by the indignity of earning an honest, modest living. Now that would be hot.
I’m pretty sure there’s a market for a similar tape starring Ryan Adams. Like Paris, Adams is famous for reasons that remain unclear to most — he was 21 Across in a recent New York Times crossword puzzle, doncha know — and as such he engenders a fair amount of resentment. Fact is, he comes with a lot of baggage, a lot of talent and more than his fair share of bullshit.
There’s the “Cobain of alt-country” tag, pressed on him like a Post-It by British wags when he was drinkin’ and druggin’ Whiskeytown — his ’90s roots-rock band of beloved shoulda-beens — into oblivion.
There’s the zigzag wanderlust that’s taken him from New York to Nashville to Los Angeles and back, leaving behind piles and piles of dirty laundry for journalists to sort through and fold in damning piles.
There’s the trail of alternababes — Winona, Alanis, Beth Orton — he’s been attached to long enough to make the gossip pages, the comely memory of each one consigned behind a velvet rope in the VIP room of his hungry heart.
And then there are the songs he’s written about all of the above, which is why we are gathered here today on page 28.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Ryan Adams is guilty of many sundry misdemeanors — marriages of convenience, self-aggrandizing mythology and, at times, infidelity to his own talent — but if his greatest crime is being a passionate man, let him be guilty.
Exhibit A is Love Is Hell, an album recorded in studios in New York, New Orleans and Los Angeles with John Porter, a producer noted for his work with The Smiths, a band near and dear to Adams’ heart.
An idiosyncratic collection of streetlight piano weepers, strummy high-lonesome range rovers and husky-voiced Hatful of Hollow pastiches, Love Is Hell was recorded during Adams’ residency at New York’s storied Chelsea Hotel, the ornate boho flophouse that people go to in search of poetry and danger or a reputation for both.
“Taking bullets for a team of bad poets/ How is it up there?” he sings on the excellent “City Rain, City Streets,” eulogizing the vapor trail of crushed romantics stretching across the ether from Parsons to Poe. Somewhere in the middle he slips in an acoustic cover of Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” making Noel Gallagher’s dark horse Beatle ode sound like a coked-up paranoid trapped inside the Hotel California. You can check in anytime you like, but you can never leave.
For the most part, Love Is Hell plays to Adams’ strength: the slightly blurred, faintly rustic midtempo art song.
Unfortunately, music biz marketing honchos and radio programmers look at a collection of slightly blurred, faintly rustic midtempo art songs and see a cake someone left out in the rain. They like their cakes with cleanly etched icing and candles burning brightly.
And so, when Lost Highway heard Love Is Hell, they sent Adams back to the drawing board with the simple proviso: Hey kid — rock ‘n’ roll. A deal was struck: Give us something we can get on the radio — critics’ darlings don’t ship gold, kid, and good press don’t keep the lights on — and we’ll put out your little art record as two EPs with no promotion.
Last August Adams locked himself in a New York studio with ex-Courtney Love paramour James Barber behind the board and in just 23 days cranked out Rock N Roll. Unfortunately, Adams is least convincing when he swings for the fences and writes for the radio programmers — witness the Bud Light in a can of 2001’s Gold.
And for a guy who’s been known to throw temper tantrums onstage if some heckler mockingly calls out “Bryan Adams” between songs, he really shouldn’t stoop to “Summer of ’69” bar-band shtick, even if an impossible deadline is looming.
“Everybody’s cool playing rock ‘n’ roll/ I don’t feel cool at all,” he sings on the title track. Somehow I don’t believe that. That people working behind the counter at the 7-Eleven don’t feel cool at all? That I believe.