One of the terrible things that happened to music after the introduction of the iPod was that people stopped buying-- and listening to-- whole albums. Most people get their music one track at a time these days, which unfortunately encourages artists to produce hit "singles" and discourages them from producing albums with some kind of thematic or sonic coherence. (The other thing that disappeared with albums was liner notes, a very specific and unique genre of historical and aesthetic writing that I miss very much.) With the exception of a few rap or hip-hop artists who regularly produce "concept albums," and also a few singer-songwriters whose dedication to authenticity keeps nostalgia alive, the true "album" is becoming more and more of an anomaly... which is a sad thing.
Obviously, I have a lot of "favorite albums," but most of them are ones like Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde or the Rolling Stones' Beggar's Banquet or Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger. That is to say, most of them are at least 30 years old. So, for today's Challenge, I tried to find a favorite album that is more recent. I should say at the outset that, for me, an great album must be more than simply a collection of great songs. It needs to have some kind of internal logic. It needs to be something that one not only wants to, but also feels obligated to, hear all the way through (and, usually, in order). It needs to have its own emotional center. And, of course, it needs to be something that one plays over and over and over and over again.
Ryan Adams' second solo album Gold is one of those albums for me. It came out in the third week of September 2001 and, as a result, the first track on the album-- a love song dedicated to "New York, New York"-- became an immediate hit in the midst of our national post-9/11 trauma. There's not a single bad song on this album, but the following is one of my favorites. Here's "Gonna Make You Love Me More":
Alt-country music fans are really divided about Ryan Adams, despite the fact that he is not only the heir apparent to the Americana Throne but also a bona fide musical prodigy. In the last decade or so, Ryans' has produced albums at an astonishing rate, resulting in what many judge to be a fairly mixed bag in terms of quality. I'm a real fan, though. I think he's one of the best songwriters of my generation. This album and this song are good evidence of why.
It's not easy to say what makes Gold hang together as an "album" so well. That's part of the reason why I like it-- it requires some thought. But if I had to hazard a guess, I would say that all of the songs on Adams' Gold demonstrate a sort of devil-be-damned attitude towards love. This song in particular is one that paints a tenuous, even treacherous, picture of the world in which lovers find each other. It's a world with riot in the streets, cops with guns, amphetamines, dancing idiots, and where the Lord will have His way. But what is the consequence of all that uncertainty, danger, risk and madness? Well, it's only gonna make you love me more.
I imagine that, like everything else with Ryan Adams, this kind of sentiment will divide people. There will be those who don't find his melodramatic mise-en-scène attractive at all; they'll see it as reckless and foolhardy and destined for disaster. (They'll probably be right, for the record.) And there will be others, myself included, who find the whole combination of love & danger to be irresistibly endorphin-producing. As I said on Day 1 about Mick Jagger's "Beast of Burden," I'm really enamored with the coincidence of braggadocio and vulnerability in songwriting. Ryan Adams' chorus on this song hits just the right spot:
This old world, well, it was mine to take
Faith can keep you warm, but I'll teach you how to shake
I'll come to you like a little girl
It's only gonna make you love me more
The whole of Gold manages to corral this sort of emotional ambivalence in an utterly satisfying way. And, because Adams' is a brilliant songwriter, he is able to do it with driving musical urgency (like in this song) just as well as he is able to do it with measured, gentle ballads (as in "When The Stars Go Blue"). As a result, I find it very difficult to listen to only one song on this album. Each one makes me want to listen to the whole.
And THAT is what makes a great album.