Ryan Adams is a super-talented artist whose music always feels a bit like homework to me. I recognize that Adams is super-talented, probably a genius even…but listening to most of his albums always feels like work. And just like that dog-eared copy of Infinite Jest I keep trying to read, I never throw the towel in completely with Adams because intellectually I know I should love his music. He’s ferocious, highly literate, and sincere to a fault–all qualities I respect in an artist. So what’s my problem with him? I think the problem might be tempo. I love when Adams gets loud.
In 2003, Ryan Adams knocked my socks off with him solo album ROCK ‘N ROLL. A joyous, unabashed love letter to the gritty rock albums that Adams (and me) grew up listening to, ROCK ‘N ROLL was largely ignored by the press and music fans in general. But I connected with this record in a big, big way. This is the album that convinced me that I had something in common with Adams, whom I’d otherwise considered to be a bit on the stuffy side. It seems as though with Adams the less he tries, the more I dig his music.
ROCK ‘N ROLL always felt as though it was a bit of a “goof” and not something Adams would repeat. Apparently the album was recorded after his label rejected his album LOVE IS HELL for not being commercial enough. ROCK ‘N ROLL was recorded to fulfill contractual obligation, a blatant attempt to create something modern rock fans would approve of but ended up biting Adams in the ass. ROCK ‘N ROLL wasn’t a smash success. But when LOVE IS HELL eventually came out, it’s darker more indie-rock focus garnered Adams immense critical praise. I’ve always thought that this rejection of ROCK ‘N ROLL and the praise LOVE IS HELL received served as a watershed moment for Adams. This was the moment when his fate was sealed and a his status as an indie rock troubadour was cemented for good. I never thought he’d put out another dirty and gritty rock album. And for the most part, I was correct…however last August he did release a very fine 11 song EP titled simply 1984.
1984. The title tips Adams hand, this (very short) collection of songs is an even bigger homage to the hard edge rock bands of yesterday. Clocking in at 14 minutes, the songs fly by and bleed together in an angry torrent of slightly fuzzy guitars and reverbed soaked vocals. This is 100% nostalgia, pure and simple. Anyone expecting a thoughtful, contemplative indie rock album should look elsewhere. 1984 is hard charging and visceral. All the tracks seem hurriedly dashed off, never quite lazy but with a sort of “fuck it” vibe. The snarly vocals and primal guitars reminded me of very early Replacements, a band who always got to the point simply and quickly.
1884 is wall-to-wall badassery. That old cliché “don’t bore us/get to the chorus” is in full effect here, with nearly all the song existing as fast guitars and million dollar choruses. “When The Summer Ends” has an almost Ramones-esque level of beautiful, brutal simplicity. Essentially the song is a just a vocal hook and sloppy guitar riff repeated over and over. This sort of thing should be annoying or stupid or come across as sloppy, but Adams is clearly putting his heart into this music and it shows. The tracks minute and forty-eight second run time also prevents the song from overstaying its welcome or becoming tiresome.
In fact, all of the songs on 1984 tumble out quickly, as though Adams is afraid he won’t remember them or he’ll run out of tape. This gives the EP a kinetic, some might even say exhausting quality. The best song, the true diamond in the rough is “Change Your Mind.” Full of both angst and yearning, the song is a quick minute and a half that captures the beautiful futility of a love that cannot be: “If I could change it, I’d change your mind.” Sometimes an aggressive power chord and a clever line shouted over the noise says more than a thousand carefully crafted lines. That’s 1984.
I also really love the loopy guitar that opens “Wolves” a song that sounds like something The Strokes would have recorded circa 2001. And the somewhat quieter ballad “Look in the Mirror” closes 1984 in a surprisingly restrained note.
Finishing up the EP, one gets the distinct feeling they’ve just finished hearing a bunch of really kickass demos. Like flipping through a painters sketch book, you get the feeling Adams could really flesh these songs out and make an incredible album. Instead, these songs exist as brief glimpses of the past where Adams was young and angry. There’s a time to think and there’s a time to damn the torpedoes and charge ahead—1984 is very much a head-down, ballsy charge. Take fifteen minutes out of your day and listen to 1984. Enjoy the nostalgia.