Love Is Hell

Ryan Adams

Lost Highway, 2004

REVIEW BY: Josh Allen


Uniformity isn’t really Ryan Adams’s thing.  One year he’s an alt-country pioneer (see Cold Roses or his Whiskeytown works of the ‘90s), the next he’s dabbling in full-blown rock ‘n’ roll (see his creatively titled Rock ‘N’ Roll album), and the next he abandons his usual formulas for metal rock.  When you’ve torn the cellophane off of a number of Adams albums, you learn to expect the unexpected.

Somewhere in the middle of all those transformations, Adams felt the urge to write about a subject that we all know just a little too well.  Love Is Hell is fascinating to me in that it so perfectly describes the meaning behind the album’s title.  There’s a very salient somber quality on most of the tracks, but the music is often subtly positive and quite beautiful.  The two polar opposite qualities echo each other extremely well, confirming in a way that while love sometimes sucks (a lot), none of us is capable of living without its beauty.

Be forewarned, if you’re teetering on the edge of plummeting into lovesick depression, this album most definitely is not for you.  Or at the very least, tune out the lyrics, or you’ll be subjected to such dejected, empty-hearted verses as “The people dancing in the corner, they seem happy, but I am sad / I am still dancing in the coma of the drinks I just had” and “[She] threw her wedding ring in the sewer / And damned them all to hell.”  How uplifting!my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

It’s not a total downer, though.  It took several listens for me to discover it, but “Please Do Not Let Me Go” quietly emerges from the pack as a faintly sugary sweet track, ending with a profound, pleading conclusion:  “True love ain’t that hard to find / Not that either one of us will ever know / Would you lay here for a while? / Please do not let me go.”  Restrained guitar strumming then evolves into an utterly beautiful bare-bones melody on piano, accompanied by reverberating steel guitar.  Adams’s composition makes it sound like the two instruments were born for each other.

In fact, those simple, remarkable instrumental phrases are present on so many of the album’s tracks.  The final minute of “Afraid Not Scared” and “World War 24” exemplify this, but the most ingenious example lies in “The Shadowlands.”  A solo, three-note piano motif accompanies Adams’s near-falsetto vocals until gradually adding percussion, lead and rhythm guitar, and even violin, crescendoing into a two-minute jam that is so lovely that it has no business being on an album called Love Is Hell.  Then there’s Adams’s reinvention of the oft-covered hit, “Wonderwall,” with a delicately emotional quality that simply wasn’t there when Oasis originally recorded it.

Ryan Adams is nothing if not prolific, effortlessly cranking out album after album, including three in 2005 alone.  As a result, however, many of his albums tend to become diluted and slightly repetitive, and Love Is Hell follows this pattern.  Standing alone, each track has its own specific brilliance, but the crawling pace of the latter half of the album causes it to sputter by the 50-minute mark or so.

But, like I said, when you put individual tracks under the microscope, it’s hard to find anything but simple, solid songwriting, even with such a tired, overdone theme as hopeless heartbreak.  For all his idiosyncrasies, Ryan Adams sure makes it look easy sometimes.

Rating: A-

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© 2011 Josh Allen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Lost Highway, and is used for informational purposes only.