Digital overload and Ryan Adams' 'Crossed Out Name'



It was one of those nights were nothing notable was happening. We were in the living room, reading or looking at nonsense online or both while iTunes was doing its thing, hopping around wherever I’d previously told it to wander while I wasted away another weeknight.

Eventually it landed on Ryan Adams’ “Crossed Out Name,” an acoustic version from his mammoth Live After Deaf box set, and that was enough to jar me out of whatever wired-in malaise I hand’t previously realized I was feeling.

Adams has a way of spinning these complex metaphors and conjuring up detailed lyrical images with a very spare use of language. He’s rarely specific, but the tenor of his voice coupled with these little winding odes creates an incredibly vivid soundscape.

On “Crossed Out Name,” originally written for his 2008 Cardinology album, the story’s narrator is vaguely discussing another night alone, wandering the streets of New York before eventually coming home to an apartment that’s now empty but was once much less so. He looks through the closet, letting his eyes slowly move around the place, all while mentally cataloging everything he’s seen and filing them along with the appropriate memory of the girl that used to live there. Without being explicit, he paints a full and complete picture of a man nearly broken and unsure of how, or why, to keep going.

But what snapped me out of whatever robotic, digital haze I might have been in was the first time he sang the song’s chorus. It’s a voice that’s equal parts defeated and aware, and it makes a seemingly simple observation:

When I close my eyes
I feel like a page
With a crossed out name

I’m an adult living in the 21st century and managing to do so without completely becoming a shut-in, so much of my life operates digitally, whether it’s my creative stuff or all the time I waste on stupid online quizzes while the seconds tick away towards the next day. But I still do quite a bit of thinking on paper.

Part of my obsessive cataloging includes never ripping pages out of anything. I have two primary notebooks — a small, black moleskine with no lines that fits in my back pocket, and a series of mead-style composition notebooks that I buy at Rite Aid for $1 apiece. Neither one of those are conducive to ripping the way a spiral-bound ledger would be, so whatever goes into those stays there. If something scribbled within is worthwhile, I’ll prop it up alongside the screen and transcribe it.

But the thought of blacking out a series of words to render them illegible, never mind physically ripping out the page, induces a minor horror.

When I hear that verse, I don’t just see the crossed-out line on the page hovering above a Xerox-friendly blue line, but I see the page torn out of the book, slightly rumpled and floating down to the floor. In a song with so many thought-provoking passages — Manhattan’s cloudy, low fog shell and “everything you know that goes with loving a girl, I suppose” — it’s a line that casually mentions an artifact that could only exist in the tangible world that snapped me back into my senses.

I thought of my theoretically torn notebook, and the empty apartment, and the shoes, and the sky, and everything else he references directly and otherwise and had the entire scene painted and detailed in my head, all within the space of a minute or two.

And then it’s over, and it’s back to life: reading, passive scrolling, tapping of fingers on a desk while the next song plays. Except of course it’s not, and when a song is good enough, it’s able to leave its imprint on the rest of that night. What was a forgettable winding of the clock was changed by the light and the fog and the page with a crossed-out name.

March 14, 2014

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