Friday, 22 July 2016
No Apologies for the Infinite Radness 1.1.14 - "So Alive" (Ryan Adams)
A taste of where we're headed.
This is a song with an interesting history, one of those "right place, right time" kind of deals, where here the right place was the Twin Towers, and the right time was the first week of September, 2001. Ryan filmed the video for "New York, New York" there, the debut single from his second solo album. Following the terrorist attack a week later, it was decided there would be no reshoot. That the video would go out as it was made, accompanying a love song to a city united in tragedy and defiance. Let the towers stand again.
The resulting resonances pushed the song into minor hit territory. Which is fair enough; even without the associations of the time it's a strong, up-tempo song drenched in the kind of hyper-condensed nostalgia one can only experience in a place that moves forwards with as much velocity as major cities do. But the additional context it took on - almost drowned in, really - warped what the public expected from Adams. Or didn't, probably, but it certainly warped what his label thought the public expected from him. Despite his first band being expert purveyors of alt-country misery, despite his debut solo album being so drenched in bourbon-and-tears American folk influence its title of Heartbreaker seemed like an understatement, despite the disc "New York, New York" having more than its share of misery-fests - the apotheosis of which being a song in which the narrator is so depressed dating Sylvia Plath seems like a good way to cheer himself up - his label was convinced Adams was now someone whose talents lay in making people feel better about themselves.
So when Adams turned in his proposed third solo album, the title-as-spoiler Love Is Hell, a low-key ramble through tales of alienation and loss, the label were somewhat less than impressed. How dare one of their artists sound like themselves instead of how they'd marketed him as sounding? They didn't want slowness and misery (neither of which the album offered up uniformly, but never mind). They wanted heart! They wanted power! They wanted rock and roll!
So Adams gave them it, agreeing to release Love Is Hell as two EPs (the first sublime, the second less so) only after a new studio album - called Rock N Roll, obviously - which Adams slapped together over a fortnight by simply recycling every rock style he could think of, from Marr to Gallagher. He even tossed off an obvious lead single almost utterly unlike everything else on the album (though he more-or-less recycled its main riff for another song, presumably to make a point), simply because that's what his label wanted, and because he so effortlessly could.
Which finally brings us to "So Alive".
(I can't help but be amused that I've done the same thing every other commentator on Adams has, and discussed his past output just as much as what I'm nominally discussing. Uniquely, though, I've done it without so much as mentioning how frequently he released albums in the mid to late '00s. Seriously, just try to find a review of any Adams disc since 29 that doesn't bring it up. It's close to impossible.)
The thing is, no matter how cynical his record label was in insisting it be written, and how cynical Adams was in writing it, "So Alive" is an absolute killer. It's about as precise a piece of guitar-work as exists, and yet the sheer forward momentum of the central riff and the gloriously unhinged structure under each verse makes everything feel barely under control, a precisely-painted picture of exploding chaos. I've been repeatedly told that, in keeping with the general approach of the album, this is Adams' impression of U2, but I've never really believed that. When U2 pick up speed it sounds like bombast. This sounds like desperation.
Which means Adams had the last laugh, even before music critics more or less unanimously agreed Love Is Hell was an act of minor genius and Rock N Roll is a glib collision of other people's ideas (inevitably, neither of these positions is correct, but we'll put that to one side). "So Alive" is utterly not the kind of song you'd want to put out in an effort to recreate the reaction to "New York, New York". I mean, you never could do that anyway, obviously, unless one had a crystal ball willing to give you the skinny on the next horrific terrorist atrocity. That said, you don't actually need a 9/11 to write love-songs to a place and time that resonate. If you're minded to try,
Instead, though, Adams abandons entirely the sense of upbeat belonging and warm nostalgia for something entirely different. On the most surface level "So Alive" can maybe be read as being optimistic about a new relationship as it begins - love is NOT hell - but the focus isn't really right for that. Adams is promising to soon belong to someone, but *their* feelings on the matter go strangely unrecorded. Are they similarly interested? Do they even know this song is about them? Devoting yourself to someone doesn't mean they come close to seeing you in the same light. Deciding you want to chase something doesn't mean they want you to catch them. When Adams falsetto-yells that he's on their side, it can't be read as gleeful romantic posing. It's a demand to be noticed. I'm on your side. I'm so alive. Just see, please, who I am and what I could be for you. It's a plea for recognition.
Or maybe not. Maybe I'm bringing myself into this too much. I have the most vivid memory of listening to this track - not for the first time, I must have burned through dozens of spins already - as I walked in the cold dark from the shitty terrace house in which I was living to the shitty off-license from which I was buying shitty drinks, trying to hold myself together over a woman I was utterly consumed by. She never saw me the way I wanted her to see me. She was too busy planning a future with a man who barely seemed to be on her side at all. Barely seemed alive. But then maybe that was a case of misrecognition as well.
Actually I guess that with such an indelible sense of place and mood burned into me, you could argue Adams really did repeat what happened with "New York, New York". 9/11 was a tragedy the entire western world shared in, or told itself it shared in (this isn't the time or place to start picking at any of that). But we share just as much the scars, or even the still-open wounds, of having to watch the one we're convinced should be with us be instead with them. We share the dreadful memories of bleeding out in a corner for someone who never seems to notice.
Perhaps Adams did pull off the same trick twice. Perhaps he just switched targets.
Either way, bargain-bin U2 this absolutely never was.