Ryan Adams

“I remember loving sound before I ever took a music lesson. And so we make our lives by what we love.” — John Cage

I love this quote. I found it on Tumblr last night, and the second sentence is so simple and poetic, I just want to hold it and squeeze it and wear it around the house like a Snuggie so it never stops warming up my worldview. Sure it’s idealistic (people with crappy jobs they can’t wait to punch out of at the end of each day are nodding their heads vigorously right now), but it’s applicable to more than just one’s vocation, and it’s a powerful reminder that if you love something — music, food, your kids, pole vaulting — you have the power to shape the rest of your life around that thing and make yourself sublimely happy. Don’t believe me? Check out this 90-year-old pole vaulter.

The other reason I love this quote is because it reminds me of Ryan Adams, or more specifically, his reputation.

He’s known as the prolific guy. The guy who writes tons of songs and releases an album a year, if not 2 or 3. Artists of all stripes would kill for that type of output, but there’s a less-flattering side to being pigeonholed like that. Quality rarely scales (I’m speaking from experience here, having recently visited McDonald’s for my yearly McRib), so it stands to reason that a humming line of production leads to a deficient and/or diluted final product. Adams himself has cast his songs as hastily assembled, saying in a 2004 interview:

Most of my songs are pretty sketchy. There’s not a lot of bass sections. I don’t write big bridges. Sometimes I’ll try. But it’s hard for me to focus that way, because I always think it’s more interesting to just see what will happen next. The process of making music is more interesting to me than the end result.

So what do we do with this? Should we judge the “end result” by the route he took to get there? Are his lyrics any less legitimate? I’ve spent more time wondering about this than I care to admit, but I had an epiphany the other night when I caught a replay of his performance on Conan of “Shining Through The Dark,” from the This Is 40 soundtrack. Adams may work efficiently, but he’s no line cook. He’s just really, really good at this music thing.

Just as Cage was in love with sound before he knew that music would be his outlet, Adams was writing short stories and limericks when he was 8, years before he even knew how to play guitar. That means Adams has been practicing storytelling in one form or another for 79% of his 38-year-old life. He’s living proof that the second part of Cage’s quote is real, not just some wide-eyed, bohemian fantasy.

And why shouldn’t he be able to work efficiently? Of songwriting, he’s on video saying,

It isn’t that hard. It’s just a guitar… How hard is it to sit down and write a song if you can play the guitar?

This assertion is fascinating, because it’s as if some of the most difficult steps in the process — finding inspiration, coming up with words and a melody — are so ingrained that they fly by, just like people who drive stick can be in fifth gear before realizing they’re out of first. And that’s just what I saw when I watched the video above for the first time. Something that felt effortless and totally meaningful at the same time. The first two lines of “Shining Through The Dark” — “Whatever happened to the old me/Whatever happened to us” — are tremendously affecting, especially when you place them against the backdrop of the movie’s premise. Regardless of how it came into existence, it’s a touching piece of art, created by a musician who has dedicated his life to what he loves, just like Cage described.

In a stroke of irony, it just so happens that, as I type this, we’re coming to the end of a year that saw no new Adams full-length (though he did release a monster, 15-disc vinyl box set that’s available on ebay for the low, low price of $750). But Adams’ contribution to the This Is 40 soundtrack stands out as one of the best songs I’ve heard all year, and it’s a textbook example of his talent for making weighty, earnest music feel light and effortless. Watch the performance above and listen to the audio below to see and hear for yourself.

Ryan Adams — “Shining Through The Dark” [Spotify/iTunes]

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