Listen to this track by former Whiskytown principle turned 21st century roots-rock poster boy Ryan Adams. It’s “New York, New York”, a stormingly anthemic single as taken from his smash 2001 record Gold his second album as a solo artist.
Apart from the ambitious scope of the record that touches on a number of classic rock textures that reference Dylan, Van Morrison, The Band, and late ’60s Rolling Stones, it had time on its side, too. Released only a couple of weeks after New York made the news in a shocking and tragic manner during the events of September 11, 2001 , this song became a love song to a city during a very troubled and heartbreaking time.
The madness of these times was palpable, and this was an anathema, like a balm during a time that felt like the end of one era, and the beginning of a much darker one. The song won him a Grammy for best male rock vocal, and raised his profile among peers, critics, and record buyers. Yet, that darkness followed this song, impossible to separate from how celebratory it sounds due to that timing which could not be forseen. Amazingly, the video for this song was shot four days before the skyline of the city to which the song became a tribute would change forever.
Listen to this song by former alt-country turned eclectic pop band Whiskeytown. It’s ‘Mirror Mirror’, a shimmering anthem from an album that almost never was –Pneumonia, the third album bearing the band’s name and released in 2001, but recorded in 1999.
The recording of the album was under the circumstances of the end of the group, and the end of the band’s label. Songwriter and lead singer Ryan Adams was virtually the sole the motivating force. He would of course make his way as a solo artist by 2000, and a prolific one at that.
But, as for this album – it was shelved for over a year, its fate uncertain while two major labels merged. Yet, fans caught wind of the rumours of its existence, and it gained a reputation as something as a great lost album, something like a lower profile version of the Beach Boys SMiLE album, which was held in legendary esteem among pop fans in the 60s and beyond – lead Beach Boy and songwriter Brian Wilson’s ‘teenage symphony to God’.
Adams’ ambition wasn’t as lofty as Brian Wilson’s perhaps. Yet, it’s clear that Adams was coming into his own as a recording artist even if the record itself didn’t make as much headway as another album also released in 2001 – Ryan Adams’ Gold, his second album as a solo artist, and one that would make him a star.
And speaking of Brian Wilson, this tune ‘Mirror Mirror’ has something of Wilson’s influence on it, a chirpy, poppy gem of a song that contrasts the sentiments of loss in its lyrics to the sunshiny joy in the melody and arrangement. This song, and the album off of which it comes showed Adams to be a remarkable talent, and well beyond the confines of the alt-country genre in which Whiskeytown had established itself. Perhaps tellingly, Whiskeytown were no more when this record reached fans.
Here’s a clip of Americana whirlwind songwriter and former Whiskeytown linchpin Ryan Adams with his 2007 track “Everybody Knows”. The song is taken from his record Easy Tiger, his ninth solo album in seven years.
Ryan Adams is a songwriting dynamo, ramping up an incredible output since the dissolution of his band Whiskeytown and his critically-acclaimed debut Heartbreaker in 2000. The follow-up to that album, 2001’s Gold, cemented his reputation as a songwriter who bears the torch of classic rock, 70s singer-songwriter, and country rock, namely the Stones, The Band, Neil Young, and even Billy Joel (Adams’ “Goodnight Hollywood Boulevard” featured on Gold is classic pre-Stranger Joel…).
But his output in more recent years has suffered mixed reviews, possibly due to a glut of product released in too quick a succession. Releasing two or three albums was pretty standard for many acts in 1963. The Beach Boys released three records that year, for instance, and kept up the pace every year until the creation of their masterpiece Pet Sounds in 1966. But, those days are gone. When Adams released three records in 2005 (two solo records, and one with his band, the Cardinals) it placed him as something of a curiosity rather than an artist vying for a lasting body of work.
Easy Tiger changes all of that, drawing together his strengths as a writer, and as an artist who is able to boil down his influences into something that transcends pastiche. This record is the proof needed to show that he is in the same league with those artists from whom he draws strength, simply because he comes the closest to finding his own voice on it, a goal which had eluded him on some of his previous releases. It helps too that the Cardinals join him on this one, and give this song, and many others on it the added push that they deserve. It also helps that Adams shows great maturity and self-awareness as a writer.
I think this is what I like about this song. The narrator is in a state of confusion and sorrow within his relationship where he describes “you and I together/but only one of us in love”. Yet, this is not a victim’s lament. He knows he is at least partially to blame when he sings
“I’m always in need and it’s hard to be reciprocating/The fabric of our life gets torn/And everything’s changing so how i am to know/How i’m going to hold on to you when i’m spinning out of control”
In many ways this song is one of many on the record which are songs about confronting one’s own shortcomings, which is an excercise many of us avoid. This is an album by a flawed man which is a perfect soundtrack for other flawed men, and for the people who love them.