Live at Carnegie Hall
PaxAmericana Recording Company/Blue Note (BLU)
Ryan Adams is 40 – and I mention this because I can’t help but feel like he’s wanted to be 40 for most of his professional (solo) career. He’s written music as if he was already 40, and looking back over his career now (which he’s doing, with this live, solo acoustic album) it makes sense. In a way, musically speaking, he has always been 40.
Also, buried in this album is a great comedy record – and not in the self-lacerating way of Lou Reed’s great comedy-album-within-a-messy-live-album. More in a self-aware, sometimes self-effacing way. Also, this is a great record – without the comedy. You’d come for the songs. Stay for them too. The amusing interludes and anecdotes merely a bonus.
Hearing his newer material in this format sends chills – Gimme Something Good feels like every great Ryan Adams song that Jason Isbell has been busily writing across the last half-decade. And then the back-catalogue…well, when cherry-picked like this it really is remarkable.
Here across two nights we get a few double-ups, but he places them in different spots, spaces them according to mood. It doesn’t feel like listening to the exact same song the exact same way, it’s like a conversation part-remembered, post-embellished. Gimme Something Good is a fine example of this. It’s a cautious opener on night one, but on the second night there’s a Springsteen-like bite to the delivery, the strings taking more of a hammering.
And if Live at Carnegie Hall (recorded late in 2014 after the energised, re-focussed self-titled record also of 2014) makes sense of that broad, vast catalogue it also highlights Adams as sensitive singer and talented instrumentalist. He moves to the piano for Sylvia Plath, turns the histrionic guitar wig out of Nobody Girl into sixties-café Dylan and toots out the familiar harmonica intro of Come Pick Me Up, as closing track both nights – he’s no idiot, he knows it’s his best song; the best snapshot of both what he does and what it means to his audience.
There was a time when there were just too many Ryan Adams records – too many to care. Now, as I rush back through them to discover forgotten, discarded gems I almost feel like there aren’t enough. And it isn’t even like he’s slowed down all that much. Until a recent three-year gap between 2011-2014. That time away was a head-clearing exercise; that much seems obvious with the one-two of last year’s studio album and this year’s live career-overview.
I like Ryan Adams at 40. (I always have). It seems like the important discovery here is that he likes Ryan Adams at 40 too. The wilfully destructive and ornery components are gone now, channelled down into giving the very best to his strongest works. It’s staggering to hear this material delivered like this. Pound for pound the best singer/songwriter of his generation (now that he’s calmed down and accepted the generation he belongs to).