Ryan Adams shivers and shakes again

drapI think it was this past March when I decided once and for all that I was finally over Ryan Adams. It was after seeing him play at South By Southwest, the first show of his I’d seen in more than a decade and one where I went in expecting an emotional experience. But it really wasn’t. I mean, it was fine — and that’s all, just fine. Yeah, there were a few tug-at-the-heartstrings moments for us old-timers. But most of it felt like a lunch date with a long-ago ex where I had to finally admit that my fond old memories were nothing more than that, memories, and so far in the past that they just weren’t relevant anymore.

The whole experience seemed like a signal that Ryan really had moved on, and I should do the same. That feeling deepened a few months later when Ryan was in the papers excitedly describing his upcoming album as an unholy cross between AC/DC, ELO, BTO, The Smiths and Bruces Hornsby and Springsteen, which sounded like it would be another record along the lines of 2014’s stillborn Ryan Adams (an album I found to be a true test of faith). Then I heard its first song, “Do You Still Love Me,” which gave no cause for optimism. So I had zero expectations when an advance copy of Prisoner came my way a few weeks ago. My plan was to give the album just enough of a listen to dismiss it well in advance of the Feb. 17 release date, chalk it up as one more to ignore and get on with my life.


…somehow, against all odds, Prisoner is actually really, really good. Not just good but great, the best album Ryan has managed in well over a decade. I’ve been binging on it for weeks now, too, and it’s holding up. All of which makes for a turn of events that I find, well, shocking. It’s not that I thought Ryan no longer had greatness in him — his 2014 one-off single “Jacksonville” still stands as frustrating proof that he has all along — but that I had resigned myself to the fact that he’d never do another album that rang my bell the way he did with those old Whiskeytown records I wrote about in “Losering.”

Ryan being Ryan and me being me, it should come as no surprise that I have a minor quibble or two. Regrettably, the funereal “Do You Still Love Me” remains in the album’s pole position as track number one (although that does make it easy to skip — bonus!). And man, do I still wish he’d give the ’80s-sounding reverb a rest and put that voice God gave him all the way out front more often, dry and unadorned. But that aside, Prisoner is fantastic and evokes a vibe similar to Ryan’s dark 2003-2004 masterpiece Love Is Hell.

Love Is Hell emerged from some profoundly heavy real-life trauma, including the 2002 cancer death of Ryan’s girlfriend Carrie Hamilton. Similarly, the end of Ryan’s marriage to Mandy Moore casts a long and despairing shadow over Prisoner — and the context makes all the sense in the world. I initially found Ryan Adams to be a turnoff because of its musical blankness, but that actually proved to be a good sonic fit for what we now know about Ryan’s emotional state when it was being made (Ryan and Mandy reportedly separated some time before their split was announced a few months after the release of Ryan Adams). In retrospect, 2011’s Ashes & Fire now sounds like contentment with a slight tinge of complacency, leading to Ryan Adams’ depiction of scenes from a dying marriage, with Ryan coming around to the realization that he’d been going numb over time without even realizing it. His subsequent Taylor Swift 1989 tribute felt like a wallow in the depression of it all; and now Prisoner is the equivalent of pulling a scab off and letting the wound underneath air out. From “Broken Anyway”:

It was broken it was fake
I just close my eyes and shake
Last chance before it slips away
Throw it all away
Can’t go back again, what was whatever it became?
Whatever we were, we’ll still be together in some ways.

It’s hard truth and it hurts, but it feels like action borne of clarity and focus. Ryan sounds more like himself (or the person this listener imagines him to be, anyway) than he has in years. The album’s overall tone is subdued but with a few interludes of release and even catharsis, like the thunderous dive-bombing guitar solo that ends the album-closing “We Disappear” — which dissolves into the sound of faint laughter, supposedly from Mandy Moore herself. “We Disappear” seems like an acknowledgement that it isn’t either individual who is disappearing, but the life they had together.

Was I wrong, am I still?
Nobody gets it
And nobody ever will
You deserve a future and you know I’ll never change
We disappear and we fade away.

I think my favorite part of Prisoner falls right in the middle, tracks five and six, starting with “Shiver and Shake” — which has a quietly murmuring, drive-all-night momentum similar to Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. hit “I’m on Fire.” Ryan’s narrator imagines seeing his love with someone else, “laughing like you never even knew I was alive.” And he sounds shocked, not so much at the pain as the realization that he’s still capable of feeling this much pain. Oh, so this is what that feels like… “Shiver and Shake” fades into “To Be Without You,” spare and stoic and graceful, with lyrics that feel like a chunk of his heart carved out and set to music.

Everything you lose will always come find its way out
Every night is lonesome and is longer than before
Nothing really matters anymore…

He sounds utterly bereft yet also matter-of-fact about accepting his lot, seemingly believing it’s what he deserves — and it crushes me every single time I hear it. I just want to give the poor guy a hug and a mug of hot chocolate. Damn, Ryan. Come home sometime and the cocoa’s on me.

I really hate to say this, because it’s not a burden I would wish on anyone. But… Ryan really does seem to be at his best when he’s most forlorn. That is emphatically the case for Prisoner, an album I still can’t quite believe exists — one with real emotional stakes, that really does feel like life or death. I’m blown away.

And just like that, I’m back in love.

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“Madonnaland” — Rolling Stone digs it, too

“Madonnaland: And Other Detours Into Fame and Fandom,” the wonderfully quirky Madonna quasi-biography penned by the great Alina Simone, is shaping up as one of the most acclaimed books we’ve published with the American Music Series. On the heels of year-end honors from National Public Radio, “Madonnaland” has earned a spot in Rolling Stone’s “10 Best Music Books of 2016” list — alongside Bruce Springsteen’s memoir “Born to Run,” Bob Mehr’s Replacements tome “Trouble Boys” and other notable titles. Jason Diamond calls “Madonnaland” a “fuller, weirder and more interesting overview of Madonna than we may have thought possible.” Check the full entry here.


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Chris Stamey’s “New York Songs”

stameystudioLong before I ever moved to North Carolina and met Chris Stamey, I was listening to him in the dB’s, one of my all-time favorite bands. And I’ve loved pretty much all his solo records over the years, too, avidly following his many projects (including his new radio play). So it’s a huge, huge thrill for me to be able to welcome Chris to the American Music Series as our newest author.

University of Texas Press has signed Chris to write a book for the AMS, which he is calling “New York Songs.” Chris describes it as “a cross between annotated songbook, musicology and recording-technique tome, and memoir,” with his songs serving as reference points. And thanks to his time playing with Alex Chilton and various CBGB denizens in Manhattan and beyond, not to mention his current status as one of Chapel Hill’s top studio gurus, Chris has some pretty amazing stories to tell.

If all goes according to plan, “New York Songs” will hit bookstores in 2018.

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Ryan Adams’ “Prisoner” — apples to oranges

When Ryan Adams’ long-awaited new album Prisoner emerges in February, it will apparently be available with more than one cover. The primary cover art seems to be a reproduction of one of his paintings, but there’s also a vinyl version featuring a photograph of an apple that’s seen better days — a Barnes & Noble exclusive, priced at $18.99. That will be available on Feb. 17.



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BJ Barham gives “Oh My Sweet Carolina” a down-home feel

Not sure how the heck I missed this when it initially surfaced last month, but it’s really lovely. Singer/songwriter BJ Barham leads the heavily Whiskeytown-influenced Raleigh band American Aquarium; and in this segment recorded for “Under the Apple Tree,” he talks about and performs a wonderfully heartfelt version of Ryan Adams’ 2000 love letter to his native state, “Oh My Sweet Carolina.” Check it out.

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NPR’s year-end visit to “Madonnaland”

Hearty congratulations of the season go out to Alina Simone, whose American Music Series title “Madonnaland: And Other Detours Into Fame And Fandom” has picked up some pretty exquisite year-end love from National Public Radio. NPR included “Madonnaland” in its Book Concierge listing of 2016’s best books, with book critic Michael Schaub pronouncing it “wonderful” — and I quite agree. The full blurb is below.


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Ryan Adams paints you a picture

drapSo this is going around as the cover of Ryan Adams’ long-awaited and oft-delayed next album Prisoner — which was originally scheduled for release last month but is now supposedly coming out in February (although he’s already playing its songs live and talking it up with Lil Bub). And this cover certainly does evoke a not-so-great feeling, making it a fitting visual symbol for an album made in the emotional fallout of his split from ex-wife Mandy Moore. That certainly seems to be the agenda of the first single, “Do You Still Love Me?”

Anyway, the cover art is one of Ryan’s paintings, and I thought it looked familiar. So I did a bit of online prowling around to try and find where I’d seen it before. And it appears to be from a group of paintings that Ryan had up for a charity auction back in 2009 at New York’s Morrison Hotel Gallery. You can see the original painting here, toward the bottom.

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Not pretending, here’s our next cover

Next up in the American Music Series will be the 11th title we’ve published since 2012, and it’s a book that takes us even further from the series’ original Americana origins. Coming in the spring is “Chrissie Hynde: A Musical Biography,” about the iconic Pretenders front woman and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, penned with great flair by the very fine writer Adam Sobsey (who recently previewed the Pretenders when they played Durham last month). And below is the cover.

Look for “Chrissie Hynde” in April (or pre-order it now here). It will be followed, later in 2017, by the anthology “Woman Walk the Line.”



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Thanksgiving suggestions from Ryan Adams, then and now

screen-shot-2016-11-23-at-10-12-15-amRyan Adams has been getting in touch with his inner Morrissey this week, pleading with his fellow Twitter travelers to make their Thanksgiving celebrations non-carnivorous. One such tweet is here on the right, but Ryan’s save-the-animals request has not been universally well-received. One wag called him out with a quip: “Remind us how many leather jackets you have?”

I choose to remember a more innocent time, way back in 1999, when Ryan was a lad of 25 and not yet into a vegetarian (or at least healthy-eating) phase. That year, he previewed Thanksgiving at his house with a highly entertaining post to the old No Depression folder, which I’ve reproduced below verbatim:


Turkey with ALL the fixings

Rusty nails and Oyster soup is good and can be served with a hodge-podge of many different things. Some might say crackers with gloop may fit the plate nicely to add a touch of rural flavoring, while others may prefer Roedung Rye Chippers with bugs. Myself, I usually stir up a blended mix of mayonaise-dirty lentil dressing, done up third world style with grits and mac and cheese power flavoring and onion soup packette with ketchup and goop zebra extract.

theres really no way to serve this up wrong. its a hit at the dinner table everytime

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Endless hours of metallic fun

Presenting the Metallica Logo Generator, a fun little trifle that offers endless possibilities for customizing a favorite name or saying in the style of the metal band’s classic font. I happened onto this on Facebook and couldn’t resist doing one in honor of “Comin’ Right at Ya” subject/star/co-writer Ray Benson’s band Asleep at the Wheel, which you can see below. Western swing has never been so heavy!


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