Ryan Adams lets it all out — literally — on 'Live After Deaf'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
The setting is Oslo, Norway, just before Ryan Adams settles in to tackle “If I Am A Stranger,” a tale of that horrible feeling of watching a loved one slip through your fingers. It’s dark, heavy and beautiful, and there isn’t a sound from the crowd as he plays it. Except for the laughs in the beginning.
“So, here’s another sunshiney anthem for the beach,” Adams tells the crowd. “Put on your smiley face and let’s do this one.”
It’s that touch of humor in the middle of such a prolifically sad body of work that separates Adams from his peers, and it’s one of the elements that makes this live album, Live After Deaf, so remarkable.
Live After Deaf is a mammoth document, serving as the culmination of Adams’ long road back to music following his break from substances, his departure from the Cardinals and his coping with the hearing loss that threatened his livelihood.
The sheer heft of the set — 15 LPs of 174 songs, with digital bonus tracks bringing the total up to 218 — feels like the delivery on the long-held promise of epic releases by Adams. Before 2002’s Demolition, he reportedly wanted to release a five-disc box set of all the unreleased music he’d record, settling instead for a 13-track sampling. 2005 saw three records released in nine months, including the double-LP Cold Roses, but promises for more releases to match his furious output were quelled by his record company.
Adams runs his own label now, and under his Pax-Am flag, he’s unleashed this beast, captured on his 2011 tour of Europe accompanied only by his own guitar, harmonica and piano. It features selections from across his career, from Whiskeytown to last year’s Ashes & Fire, with unreleased and little-performed gems sprinkled alongside his favorites, and typically funny rants breaking the heavy mood these songs inevitably carry.
At its core, these are the songs that have given him his name as the great songwriter of the past decade. Cast in theaters and stripped down to one instrument and a voice, they’re given a bare, beautiful canvas. The sweet disappointment of “Strawberry Wine,” for example, from Brighton on June 22, features Adams voice jumping from his lowest to highest registers with ease, all with the crowd silent, save for the occasional cough and a rousing applause at the end. The sparkling acoustics of Malmö, Sweden, present the perfect setting for the intricate guitar picking on “Let it Ride.” “English Girls Approximately” gets a relatively rare opportunity to shine in Lisbon. In Cork, Ireland, he pays tribute to his recent Cardinals past with a stirring rendition of “Crossed-Out Name.” And there are 212 more moments like this.
He was also in a tremendously good mood throughout this tour, joking with the crowd and making up songs as he went along. “Mr. Booger Man” is a tribute to a visitor he had recently freed from his nose in Porto, Portugal. “Goodnight Bob” is a surprisingly on-the-spot tale of a stressed-out laundromat owner sung from the perspective of his annoyed girlfriend in Glasgow, Scotland. Elsewhere, tributes to Jesus, cougars and the random shouts of crowd members are present and accounted for.
It’s not perfect, in that way that nothing but Abbey Road is perfect. The many covers he’s peppered within his live sets are absent, save for a take on Cowboy Junkies' "200 More Miles," and if you listen to the entire set on a loop, you’ll hear him say a variation of “Thank you, goodnight,” once every 30 minutes or so. But as far as complaints go, these are as minor as they come. They’re here for documentation, not to quibble.
But that same heft serves to make this as interactive a record as a hardcore Adams fan could dream of. Throw all 218 digital tracks into a playlist, and start to pare down the set to its core, keeping the best version of each song. I spent a good part of an afternoon doing this, after working through the set and keeping notes on each track as it played, and I wound up with a comparatively lean 59-song collection that I’ll carry in my pocket every day from here on out. Yours would likely be different. It’s another entertaining element to unleashing a collection like this.
This is not an assemblage for the newly minted, but for those willing to take the journey through these many takes and venues, there is an overwhelming amount of soul, heartbreak and joy to be found. Live After Deaf, for such a prolific artist, is an album that laughs in the face of a daunting catalog. It’s ambitious, even for a notoriously ambitious artist. In its presentation, it is relentlessly beautiful. And it takes a hell of a sense of humor to dream up a 15 LP live album.
E-mail Nick Tavares at email@example.com