“I’ve suffered for my art. Now you’re going to.” Anonymous singer-songwriter, old music industry joke.
Last night we went to see Ryan Adams. He is a startlingly prolific songwriter, in the alt-country idiom. (He has nothing to do with Bryan Adams, the leather-lunged Canadian rocker.)
Adams was raised in North Carolina and had what he has admitted was a difficult childhood. His early adult years were not a lot better, and he penned a long series of at times gloomy, miserabilist, even harrowing songs. “Sylvia Plath”, “This House Is Not For Sale”, “Love Is Hell”, “Oh My Sweet Carolina”.
He is one of those songwriters who has the ability to write a tune which you are convinced you have heard before, even when you haven’t. But not by sounding derivative. He is also a consummate performer. I know no one who has heard him and doesn’t like him. His fans are loyal to a fault. Enough praise.
Adams had not had the happiest of lives, with a few personal issues, then. In 2009 he married a singer/actress, appeared to have banished his demons and settled down to a life of happiness and domestic stability. Or so it seemed. Those of us who follow his music at times wonder if that stability has knocked some of the emotional depth off his subsequent work. Put bluntly, songs about happiness can often sound less affecting than songs steeped in abject misery.
Earlier this year, according to his Wikipedia entry, Adams split amicably with the singer/actress. Last night he seemed cheerful enough. “Here’s a song about dead people…” “Here’s another sad song…”
One would wish him all future happiness. Some of us, though, look forward to his later oeuvre with a little more anticipation than before. Which is probably unfair, even ghoulish… There is a long history in art of expecting artists to express emotions we do not particularly wish to feel ourselves but would prefer to experience vicariously. And presumably therefore to experience them themselves, on our behalf.
PS: Incidentally, if you like Ryan Adams, try the less well known Jason Isbell, or John Murry’s CD “The Graceless Age”. Two other songwriters who have been through the grinder, and it shows. Murry’s “Little Colored Balloons” describes his temporary “death” from an overdose in San Francisco, his hospitalisation, his alienation from his family… Oh, how we laughed. One of the best songs I have heard in years. Ghoul.