By Chris Anderson
Ryan Adams: Prisoner
Kicking off with “Do You Still Love Me?”, the mood is set right off the bat. “I am a prisoner for your love”, he sings on the title track. While details of the split have never been explicitly discussed, it’s clear that this was a traumatic experience and one that can be read all over these songs. This sense of loss and loneliness can be found in “Haunted House” – “I live here alone and no one else….my friends all disappeared one by one”. “I miss you so much I shiver and shake”, he sings on the following song, while “To Be Without You” finds him confiding that “every night is lonesome and longer than before” and “I feel empty, I feel tired, I feel worn”. Musically, these songs are generally upbeat but these are words of defeat. The singer at the end of side one is, if not broken, then significantly marred.
Side two finds bitterness bubble to the fore in “Anything I Say To You Now”, where he says that “anything I say to you is a lie” – communication is down. These are the sorts of feelings we all experience in a breakup, especially a tumultuous one. These emotions come to a head in the dark grooves of “Breakdown”, where he all but gives up. “Outbound Train”, with its Springsteen feel, is that stage of grief where you try and downplay the significance of the relationship – “I swear I wasn’t lonely when I met you girl, but I was so bored”. We all go through those motions, the ones that we design for ourselves to make ourselves feel better. “Broken Anyway” continues that reassurance that the relationship was doomed from the start and there’s no point in sugar-coating and getting wistful because, well, “it was broken and it was fake”.
The acoustic “Tightrope” finds Ryan getting nostalgic again, “all I want is for you to make me smile/all I want is for you to drive me wild”, but while the lyric never actually goes there, the movement of the musical track suggests that he knows it’s hypothetical. Usually, breakup albums end on a positive note, that glimmer of hope at the end of a journey through grief. This album, however, ends with “We Disappear”, and Ryan closing up, sinking into himself….which can be considered a victory as well. I mean, if the point is to get over someone, I guess anything can be a success so long as it gets the job done, right? Even if that means having to admit that “I got nothing for you but a bag of tricks and a broken noose” and how it all feels like “a bad commercial in the movie of my life”. We’ve been there.
Truth told, Ryan Adams has never been a writer of happy songs. This is the guy who sang “Love Is Hell”, after all. But this is something else. Perhaps it’s because we know what inspired these songs, perhaps not, but this definitely is a much more tangible sort of downer for him. That said, however, this is also one of his finest albums, where every song is a killer. Grief yields results. Just ask Bob Dylan.
Shaman Elephant: Crystals
Side two finds the band stretching out on two long-form pieces. The first is called “The Jazz” and is ten minutes of that kind of deep, dark psych that makes Black Mountain sound like a pop group. The coda will make your hair stand on end. Rounding out the album is the 12-minute “Stoned Conceptions”. You can probably guess how that one turns out. What makes it great is that this band does “far out” really well. Spacey in the right places, heavy in the right places, just the right amount of quirk, and enough skill to keep it compelling all the way through. This band deserves everything good that might ever happen to them.