With hardly a whisper from the collective music community in the past two weeks, the 10th anniversary of a defining record for one of this generation's most prolific musicians came and went. Ryan Adams'
, his fifth solo record and what may be his darkest offering to date, was a stripped-down, reverb-drenched affair that lacked the foot-stomping cuts of previous works and opted for more show than tell. It's a folk album that displayed Adams' penchant for writing records that stick, even if they leave you a little uneasy.
Often at odds with his long-time label, Lost Highway, Love Is Hell is a shining example of such a conflict between musician and industry. It's worth noting that the record had been released in its entirety, broken up into two parts, prior to its May release date, but only because Lost Highway initially deemed the collection of songs unworthy of an LP production until fan response proved otherwise.
Where Adams bounced between story lines of dusty people in dusty towns and precociously rakish songs like "To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)" and "Shakedown on 9th Street" on his 2000 album Heartbreaker, Love Is Hell was a decidedly more cohesive record, written in a similar vein only four years after Heartbreaker's release. Where Heartbreaker proved his mettle, displaying his range and solo-artist independence, Love Is Hell had Adams' broken-heart narrative worked out to its finest point.
That's not to say that it's a record that's entirely self-serving. Like Conor Oberst, Bob Dylan or Neil Young, Adams paints pictures that are beautiful, sparse, and haunting. There's an sense of desperation that slowly creeps into all the characters of the record -- broken hearts that are amplified by the stories of broken children, broken homes, broken cities. His six years in Whiskeytown serve his storytelling well, taking his alt-country background into true alternative territory without the raised middle finger of 2003's critically disastrous Rock N Roll. The production value of tracks like "Political Scientist" and the "Wonderwall" cover are minimal at best, relying more on technical dynamics and delivery.
There are shadows of later songs here as well: "Please Do Not Let Me Go" shows a knack for left-field guitar lines that come back around on the stellar "These Girls" from Easy Tiger and "My Love For You Is Real" on the Follow The Lights EP, while "Shadowlands" moves like a heroin-addled version of "Night Birds" from 29.
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More than just premonitive, Love Is Hell found Adams displaying a voice that was quieter, removed and self-aware, even when telling stories through someone else's eyes. Just six months prior to the record's release, Pitchfork labeled him on an "artistic decline" -- instead of telling critics to fuck off, as he would have in years prior, he released Love Is Hell -- a rare record that's a both a subtly indignant act and a reminder that there's beauty in what's broken.