Be addicted to something else: a (sort of) discussion on Prisoner

Over the last few years, me and my good pal David Gillespie have fired up the satellites (he in New York, me in Melbourne) to chat about the latest album from Ryan Adams.

Our previous discussions on Ryan Adams and 1989 can be found in the respective links. For his new album Prisoner however, we took a different approach in the hope that our conversation could be a little more richer, a little deeper.

The jury is out as to whether we succeded.

On Wed, Mar 1, 2017, Stuart McPhee ‪wrote:

So we had planned to catch up over Skype or Google Hangout to discuss the new Ryan Adams record but I know (that we both know) that our hearts are not in it.

We are both disappointed with Prisoner and we are equally baffled as to the praise this is receiving. Where was this for Love Is Hell?

Given we are long-term fans of RA, we can’t be painted as a pair of contrarians for the sake of being contrarian. A track by track takedown of Prisoner does not serve anyone.

Besides, you and I have plenty of time to become Statler and Waldorf in our declining years.

I thought a better use of our time was to go back and forth in a series of emails to discuss the wider issues of music, film and expectations that we currently face.

The world is full of piping hot takes and stinging rebukes that have now taken over our lives. As Mark Renton now tells us: “You’re an addict. So be addicted, just be addicted to something else. Choose the ones you love. Choose your future. Choose life.”

But let’s start with Prisoner.

Pretty much the only thing I agree with regarding the reviews for this album is that it is the final instalment of his divorce trilogy (alongside Ryan Adams and 1989). Where my views differ from the general public is that Prisoner is less Return of the King and more Godfather Part III

It is as if the critics believe this album is the height of heartbreak and misery. Are they not aware of the 20,000 songs in this man’s back catalogue?

Although we are not going track by track on this, I do want to point out that the only reason ‘Shiver and Shake’ exists is to be performed as a medley with RA’s version of ‘Shake It Off’. If that doesn’t occur in concert then I am wiping my hands clean of the whole thing. Whether Springsteen is adequately compensated for the liberal use of ‘I’m On Fire’ is another conversation entirely.

So is it the case that we are completely wrong or are we the last two sane people on earth?

On Tues, Mar 7, 2017, David Gillespie ‪wrote:

First off, I owe you an apology by way of an explanation. I’m in Amsterdam this week sorting out visa renewals — call it the Muslim Ban +1. Spoiler alert: I’m the plus one. In lieu of waterboarding, I’ve put Prisoner on in my headphones as punishment. If you find a single character repeating endlessly down the screen, I’ve fallen asleep on the keyboard. Jet lag or this album? YOU DECIDE.

Your choice of a Trainspotting quote is apt on several levels. For one the sequel is about to drop (and if you haven’t read Porno, do yourself a favour). For another, the “this sounds like a worse version of that” can be played track by track through the entire album, and save pulling something off Cardinals 3/4, you’re 99% more likely to wind up with a better song in its place.

I find “the divorce trilogy” argument somewhat indulgent. Just how long can a person be getting divorced for? Can it really count as being part of a divorce trilogy when a third of it is brought to you by Max Martin’s hit factory and was originally made popular by a girl whose idea of a long-term relationship is to make it through the summer she sings so frantically about?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a sucker for a pop hook, and the original of ‘Style’ was jammed into my head with all the enthusiasm of a tweenage Swifty hopped up on twizzlers and Diet Pepsi. But mining Taylor Swift songs to garner insight into a divorce is akin to devouring the salad bar at Sizzler to learn more about the eating habits of herbivores. I’d sooner sing Huey Lewis’ ‘If This Is It’ into a mirror with a hairbrush microphone to mourn a lost lover than turn up ‘All You Had To Do Was Stay’ — and to be clear I would never do the former.

Ok, it is unlikely that I would do the former. Mostly.

If I was to indulge the trilogy argument for a moment, what does that say about the rest of his discography? The 3 Whiskeytown albums are the “Figuring out how to be Ryan Adams” trilogy, Heartbreaker/Gold/Demoliton are…what? The “Am I the most talented songwriter of my generation trilogy? Love Is Hell/Rock’n’Roll/Cold Roses are the “Who I wanted to be, who my label wanted me to be, and where we settled” trilogy? Does this even make any sense?

On Sun, Mar 12, 2017, Stuart McPhee ‪wrote:

Amsterdam eh? Tough times. I guess if you are going to be inconvenienced by the Trump administration, the least you could do is do it in style. Back home, we like to offer a lovely island getaway called Nauru. Unsure what the Trip Advisor rating is though.

The Trainspotting sequel has already landed on these somewhat tainted shores. Having seen it, I will be as spoiler free as possible here. They took very little from Porno which I think was a wise choice. Whilst it is a fine book, I don’t think it would have translated to screen. I mean, are audiences ready for “Juice Terry” Lawson? The best analogy I read for the film (and I am paraphrasing here) was: “If the original was all junkie thin and exposed ribs then the sequel is the flesh and the heart”. Though if you are expecting a Disney ending from that, then you are sorely mistaken.

Expectations are a funny thing. Regardless of how many books Irvine Welsh writes about these characters, the exercise of getting the original cast back together to film a follow up to a classic is ballsy to say the least. Admittedly, pissing away a legacy has become an industry of its own in Hollywood and this could very well have occurred. If the only great thing to come of this is that we see Danny Boyle and Ewan McGregor reunited to make films again then I’m fine. To be honest, McGregor should have thanked Danny Boyle the minute the reviews came in for The Beach.

I like your go to selection for what Huey Lewis song to soundtrack a break up. Mine would be ‘Let Her Go and Start Over’ but I am a latter period Lewis apologist.

The main issue with (either version of) 1989 is that the idea of Summer of 1989 was perfected way back in 1989 by the great Daryl Braithwaite.

‘One Summer’ both the song and the film clip are rightly or wrongly responsible for a number of things (besides making TSwift redundant):

- The idea of three guys playing acoustic guitars on a back porch predates Jack Johnson by a generation

- Braithwaite’s partner in the clip picks up a saddle to go riding, meaning the video for ‘Horses’ is technically a sequel. The only time I have seen anything this forward thinking was jokes that were planted in season 1 of Arrested Development paying off in seasons 3 and 4

- To date, ‘One Summer’ is the only song ever to use the phrase ‘fait accompli’

- Upon its release in 1989, ‘One Summer’ became instantly nostalgic which is important because it is (at its core) a song about nostalgia.

This was released in the middle of a great run of singles. August 88s ‘As The Days Go By’ to May 91s ‘Higher Than Hope’ is unimpeachable as far as I’m concerned.

I think your analogy on the trilogy holds. You use the word ‘settled’ at the end there and that could pretty much cover all his official albums from Easy Tiger onwards. To bring it back to nostalgia for a minute, I think the further we remove ourselves from the Whiskeytown era, the larger the legend will grow. I was listening to the unreleased album Forever Valentine the other day which was recorded between Stranger’s Almanac and Pneumonia. Someone needs to get there hands on the masters and bring that baby to life. The tune ‘Rays of Burning Light’ is a cracker.

Or perhaps Mine Driver’s character in Grosse Pointe Blank is right when she says: “Everybody’s coming back to take stock of their lives. You know what I say? Leave your livestock alone.”

On Thurs, Mar 16, 2017, David Gillespie ‪wrote:

Your assessment of the Trainspotting sequel doesn’t fill me with hope. Mind you, I’ve been open with my indie filmworld girlfriend — if it isn’t a rockumentary or a film about basketball, then I’m not really interested in seeing it. This might make me a cultural ignoramous, but what’s more ignorant: actively choosing what you’re interested in or seeing everything that hits the silver screen?

I choose the former — and yet I still don’t think Leo should have won the Oscar. Modern life.

Braithwaite’s run of late 80s singles are all tailor-made for movie soundtracks. It’s a testament to his management of the time that he managed to stay away from Hollywood — they would have had to go out of their way to fuck that up. But then again that was Australian music at the time — James Reyne, Noiseworks, Southern Sons, there is something eminently cinematic about the music they were making. You’re right that ‘One Summer’ was instantly nostalgic, but wasn’t everything at that point? The end of the decade is consolidation. Grunge hadn’t hit, rap was still a sub-culture, and your beloved fucking Huey was in the midst of wondering why nobody wanted to listen to their proto pop-jazz. Keep on dreaming of that perfect world Huey — also in his dreams? Any further chart success, Cruisin’ be damned.

Did you listen to the Marc Maron interview with Adams? They talked a lot about Whiskeytown and how Pneumonia’s hold up was basically the result of labels taking over each other and them just getting lost in the shuffle. I find Maron interminable for the most part, but it’s a good interview, and entirely absent in any sense of nostalgia for those days. That in and of itself is a shame, as like most mid-career songwriters, they’ve had enough success now to think they no longer need an editor. There was definitely a sense on Ryan Adams of having to re-prove something to someone, and it’s as if that came too easily, as this album reeks of a process wherein nobody said no to anything. Maybe there are better songs in here somewhere, but the interminable sameness across the entire record. I’ve found myself returning to ‘Prisoner’ and ‘Doomsday’ the former actually growing on me, the latter simply because it’s the best of a bad bunch, and probably belongs on some sort of career-spanning reissue of Demolition rather than an album proper. ‘Outbound Train’ is in this category for me as well, it sounds like it was written in 5 minutes — and maybe it was, that in itself isn’t a bad thing. What it lacks though is the dramatic tension — so Springsteenian in its execution but no sense that anything is at stake. I’m going to write another sentence here just to let it sink in how long this paragraph is.

Jesus. My kingdom for a 5th grade English lesson.

Adams is still too young to take his Johnny Cash-style turn with Rick Rubin, but something needs to give on the next one. Perhaps it is reuniting with Ethan Johns, perhaps it’s something different entirely, but it reminds me of a story Apple designer Jonny Ive tells about working with Jobs. He’d show up and want to see the stuff Ive had said no to — not for the sake of saying no, but the stuff he really wrestled with and ultimately hd to put down in order to focus on the things that would really make a difference. Most of the tracks here are songs someone should have said no to. It isn’t easy, but when was this supposed to be?

On Sun, Mar 19, 2017, Stuart McPhee ‪wrote:

Blur were wrong (no surprises there). Modern Life is not Rubbish. It is just too busy.

I’m with you on the choices of what to see (be they film or television). I have better things to do with my time than be convinced that Andrew Garfield can carry an Oscar nominated film. Hacksaw Ridge would have been worth watching if some smart Hollywood type suggested: “But what if the main character was played by (former pro wrestler) Hacksaw Jim Duggan?”

Interested now right?

Your line of “I find Maron interminable for the most part” is bang on. Anyone who wastes the first 15 minutes espousing nonsense before we get anywhere near the meat of the podcast can go to hell.

Modern Life is not Rubbish. It is just too busy.

I wish the underrated Sam Jones (Off Camera podcast) gets a chance to interview him at some point.

I keep hoping that Prisoner will reveal itself over time as a great album but I find that really hard to believe. It has the immediacy you hope for from an RA album but I cannot see the depth to the songs that everyone else have fallen for. I can slip it on at any time but I don’t find myself wanting to stop and go back and really listen in to any of the tracks. To paraphrase Sorkin, Prisoner is: “the Jay Leno of Ryan Adams albums. Popular because it doesn’t offend anyone.”

Whatever path he decides to take next, it needs to be a tiny bit divisive. I agree, he needs a producer willing to push him to say no.

Perhaps we finish things off with a recommendation for one another (as well as for the readers) of an artist to check out?

For me it is the Philly band Strand of Oaks. Essentially the work of one man (Timothy Showalter) Strand of Oaks is the sound of a man whose noise rock heart has been broken by love and by drugs so many times he figures what could possibly go wrong if he rips it out and pins it to his sleeve? If Sholwater had been based in the North of England in the early 90s then Alan McGee would have signed him to a three album deal. Entry points should be ‘Radio Kids’ off the new album Hard Love and ‘Shut In’ from their previous release HEAL.

On Sun, Mar 26, 2017, David Gillespie ‪wrote:

Too busy indeed — since I last wrote I spent 5 days in Las Vegas with clients. Robert Downey Jr. suggests in (the forever underrated) Kiss Kiss Bang Bang that LA is like someone grabbed the east coast, shook it like a rug and all the damaged people fell off and landed there. The ones that held on just seem to visit Vegas. Fuck that place.

I’ll give Strand of Oaks a listen, though I must admit your description has not whet my appetite. My selection is the opposite end of the spectrum, Canadian singer/songwriter Leif Vollebekk. Raspy blue eyed soul voice that belies melancholic, simple piano-lead pop. The track that alerted me to him is Elegy, the third on his new album Twin Solitude. The whole thing is a quiet achievement. Perhaps not a gem, but perfect for what it is.

It would be nice to say the same again regarding one David Ryan Adams. We’ll see.