Saturday, November 6, 2010

Ryan Adams & the Art of Challenging Your Audience

In the history of music, there has never been an artist as skilled and musically erratic as Ryan Adams. When a popular music figure makes music unlike an earlier and more popular release, the critics always say they are "challenging their audience." And Ryan Adams is the king of that phenomenon, to the point that his fans have either accepted the challenge or turned away confused and jaded, like a NASA scientist who couldn't quite cut it.

Every time a band releases something like Pinkerton or Music from the Elder, there are two inevitable questions. 1) Is it any good? and 2) What's the meaning of this? That second question is almost more important than the first, because music listeners tend to take their favorite artists direction very personally. Everyone wonders what the hell they're thinking, even if it's actually decent music. They question the motivation of putting something out that doesn't sound anything like the successful hit album from two years ago. Is it a joke? Have they gone crazy? Am I seriously expected to enjoy this?

The two aforementioned albums represent good examples of the whole challenging your audience vibe. KISS's Music from the Elder wasn't a very good album. It wasn't good at all. It was, in fact, awful. The motivation behind it only made the ordeal worse. KISS was fading out of the 70's pretty fast - losing their devoted fans by softening up in order to reach a broader fan base. All the kids took a long enough break from trying to sew cow tongues into their friends mouths to notice that the band cared more about merchandising than making rock n' roll. Gene and company knew their album sales were slipping because of the softened image and music of the band, so he decided to do something drastic - a concept album written and recorded with the help of a symphony orchestra and a manager who later admitted that many of the disastrous creative decisions were due to his severe cocaine addiction.

The mark of a true artist is to work their craft from the inside out, without thinking of the audience. That KISS album clearly demonstrated that the band (Gene and Paul) motivations were not of an artistic nature. But the same can't be said for Rivers Cuomo and Weezers' follow-up to their break-through debut album. Everyone hated Pinkerton when it came out, citing Cuomo's emotional lyrics about sexual longing and half-Japanese girls, which stood in contrast to the Blue Albums' fun and nerdy vibe. He must have taken the criticism to heart, because Weezer hasn't released anything as heartfelt or honest (or half-way decent) since. When people look back at the album, they realize it was Cuomo making the music he felt at the time.

The problem with Ryan Adams is that he's consistently, absurdly erratic. No one could possibly enjoy all of his music. His accessible albums are pretty musically diverse, but the outliers are so far out there that they make those regular albums feel as predictable as a hipster scoffing at your bicycle. Is there another musician as wildly diverse as Adams? Prince has done a lot of different things over the years, but not that different. (though it would be hard to find, even among the hard-core Prince faithful, anyone who enjoyed Hot Summer or Purple and Gold.) Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones have both had inevitable phases and flops, but they generally stuck to one genre. Ryan Adams is different.

He started out in the band Whiskeytown in the mid-90's, which Rolling Stone called "the Nirvana of alt-country." Without really listening to much of it, I'll just describe it as country soft with a punk punch. That's where he started. Now let's look at a bunch of songs that illustrate his song output since then. We'll move chronologically, but just remember that Adams didn't move from soft to hard, he bounced all over the place - last year he released sweet acoustic songs and satanic metal.

To completely over-generalize, I'd call this song pretty typical of 70% of his catalog. He's singing slowly and beautifully to a girl, but there's definitely an edge.

I wish you would
Come pick me up
Take me out
Fuck me up
Steal my records
Screw all my friends
Behind my back
With a smile on your face
And then do it again
I wish you would

This is rockn'roll, but there's no distortion or anything. That's why folks were fairly shocked when Adams came out with Rock N Roll. I guess they could ignore his very low-key punk side project with Jesse Malin, The Finger. But they couldn't ignore this:

This album received very mixed reviews from critics and fans, but Adams reputation as a great alt-country songwriter certainly took a hit. He calmed down for the next five years with the his backing band, the Cardinals, but then word came out that he was releasing his first "fully-realized sci-fi metal concept album."

And the thing is, you can't exactly tell why he's making that amazing piece of art or, say, a satanic, pizza-oriented black metal project with a debut album entitled, "Feel the Laser." Is he fucking with us? Does he really like it? Does he really expect us to like it? Is this some sort of jab at his record label?

Luckily, Adams has been doing this for so long that people have stopped asking those questions. (they're still asking about Metal Machine Music, though.) We've come to understand that he has a real interest in many types of music, and he enjoys playing different stuff. Not only that, but Adams has a really silly sense of humor, as evidenced by his website that opens with this message:

Welcome to the new PAX•AM Records site

My Name is Bongo the Snowman – I’ll be updating you on new releases and news related the PAX•AM roster – with bands such as Ryan Adams, Ryan Adams & The Cardinals and more eclectic tastes such as Ryan Adams. I live on an invisible mountain in the sky. Good Morning
Or the time he hijacked his wife's Twitter account: (click for large)

This is what makes him fun to follow. He has to be having fun making music. And the results can fall anywhere from terrible to amazing, from hilarious to sincere, and everywhere in between. Ryan Adams can challenge me anytime.


linda said...

Great post. I have about everything Ryan Adams has done and his diversity is almost mind bending.
Also he is so prolific and then eccentric it makes me think he is manic/depressive.
(I don't mean that in a bad way)
Thanks for the links.
Do you ever listen to the Old 97s?

haasertime said...

Thanks Linda. Yeah, I think a lot great artists are wierdo perfectionist manic/depressives. Usually in a good way, besides Axl Rose.

I think I've only heard one song by the Old 97's. I'll have to check them out.

Also, after actually thinking about it, the phrase is "challenging [the] audience" is ridiculous. It just shows that the critics think musicians are consciously making music just for them.

linda said...

You made me get "Gold" out now.
I think it is flawless.
Old 97's have been around quite a while. Rhett Miller has a knack for writng a little like Paul Westeberg (in my opinon)
I've often heard them called "Cowpunk."