Do a Google image search for “Gibson ES-335 Bigsby Tailpiece.” See that gorgeous guitar in the pictures? That guitar shapes the entire sound for Ryan Adams’ newest album, Ryan Adams.
You see, good songwriters craft songs that feel familiar and have melodies you could swear you’ve heard before and, usually, speak from the heart. The great songwriters(think Springsteen/Petty), have some unique sonic compliment to the aforementioned qualities. Springsteen would use the initial melody to build a full-band fortress of sound for his voice to then break down over. Petty sang with such a laid back feel that you can almost picture him chewing gum or something while he sang…that lazy feel made his words seem so shoulder shruggingly matter of fact that they had to be real. Very different styles, but, both had a thing.
Ryan Adams has consistently been a good songwriter and, in a few circumstances, a great one. On Ryan Adams, however, he has a thing. He uses his ES-335 as a palette to serve up both uncertainty and a longing for closeness. Allow me to briefly explain. A Gibson ES-335 is a semi-hollow electric guitar. A semi-hollow can have incredible warmth but will often sound detached and distant because the sound echoes in the air rather than vibrating through a solid block of wood. The Bigsby tailpiece creates subtle vibrato, fractionally bending/warping the note played. Basically, it feels like the note may waver and wander away for a moment before popping back to place. Ryan Adams uses his instrument as a tool to carve out a space for his voice to live in. Even if there were no words on this album, the sound alone would get his message across.
Now, listen to these song titles, Give Me Something Good, Am I Safe, Stay With Me, I Just Might, Tired Of Giving Up. These titles scream out uncertainty, fear, and a longing to be loved. Look at the album cover again. Half of his face is covered by hair that is too young for a 40 year old. It is simultaneously dark and light. He faces the camera, eyes straight forward for the first time on a cover. He is telling us something.
Ryan Adams, I think, feels the warmth of love at an arms length. The album almost feels happy at times but it ultimately ends up feeling like someone standing at the edge of making a decision. Will I allow myself to be vulnerable? Will you hurt me if I do? We could sit and talk about the lyrics and the melodies but there’s not much to say that hasn’t been said before over his career. This album, however, stands out from the rest of his catalog because he carries a sound throughout that is the perfect sonic compliment to the emotion behind the words. Ryan Adams is a great songwriter.
(side note – this album very much reminds me of listening to Cuts Like A Knife by Bryan Adams as a kid which cracks me up because their names are so close!)