Gold is the second solo album from Whiskeytown front man Ryan Adams, a man who has become a quasi poster child for “alt-country” and the like. This album may not be as strong as Adams’ premiere, Heartbreaker, but its timing and content may bring Adams even more into the world’s peeping view.
Let it be said that this album, upside-down American flag and all, was recorded and released before Sept. 11. The first track, “New York, New York” takes a look back on lost-love and a city left behind, finally conceding, “Hell I still love you though New York.” Whereas Heartbreaker was just what it says—an aching love letter of Adams pining over his lost love—Gold is more of an introspection and coming to terms with life and love. Adams makes bold gestures, and backs them up with some of the most honest and personally defining songs of any artist out there right now. You will hear traces of the raw emotion found in Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night in Gold. You’ll hear The Who, you’ll hear the Stones, but, more importantly, you’ll hear a musician who’s not afraid to have fun playing heartbreaking songs.
“Rescue Blues” may be one of the finest tracks on the album, and will ring a bell for anyone who’s ever been asked for love from someone who took their love for granted. The haunting “SYLVIA PLATH” paints images of the late poet slipping Adams pills and giving him a bath: “Oh I wish I had a Sylvia Plath.” The second disc of
Gold holds some less flashy acoustic gems, including the howling “Sweet Black Magic,” a testament to Adams’ musical diversity.
Gold will grow on you for no other reason that, like all of Adams’ music, it grabs your ears and spills its guts, remaining brutally honest throughout the album. Sebastopol is the first solo project from Son Volt front man Jay Farrar, and, easily Farrar’s most experimental work to date. If each song weren’t unique in its own right, this album might sound as good without breaks. The entire album has a gritty ambiance that at first makes Farrar’s words sound hollow, their meanings abstract and random, but after really listening to Sebastopol in its entirety you begin to hear the songs’ honest poetics. The more you listen, the more you begin to feel their truth and breadth. A steady and almost random drumbeat, distorted guitars and synthesizers (not too much but just right) accompany a slightly sarcastic, but also positive tone on the opening track, “Feel Free” which seems to set the stage for Sebastopol: “Getting by on the status quo. It’s worse before, but there’s still a hard road to go. Breathe in all the diesel fumes, admire the concrete landscaping. Doesn’t it feel free?” Farrar speaks in simple phrases and refrains: “Heard about circumstances. Can you hear the hum outside the door?”
Farrar has also gathered a very diverse and talented cast of musicians for the record. Gillian Welch appears with David Rawlings on the dark but touching “Barstow,” an apocalyptic tale of a world taken for granted: “Take no notice of the rising waters, take no notice where the rivers run dry. They’ll be diggin’ through the landfills to find evidence of our great demise.” Flaming Lips pianist Steven Drodze tickles the ivories, synth and melodica, giving the album the very necessary ambiance, and Jon Wurster of Superchunk gives the album a distinctive rhythm. Even sitar-like guitars have their sound heard on this record, side by side with the buttery slide guitar of Kelly Joe Phelps. Sebastopol is a breath of fresh air from the man who has been criticized for being too repetitious with his music: a compelling, sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle look at the human condition with end of the world sadness/gladness.
Regardless of whether you appreciate the music that Ryan Adams and Jay Farrar are making, you may find truth not just in the patriotism and positivity in these albums, but also in the realism and criticism these two artists have for a country and people who seem to not want to learn from their mistakes. The work of both artists is a tribute to the role of simplicity and honesty in music, and both of these albums are very welcome in these crazy times of ours.