Ryan Adams’ last official album Gold (a collection of demo versions, Demolition, was released last year) was widely acclaimed as one of the best records of 2001, so following it up was always going to be difficult. Possibly Adams himself though didn’t realise how difficult it would be.
Love Is Hell was originally rejected by Adams’ record company as being too downbeat and they requested he write some more songs in the vein of Gold. A strange request, as anyone who’s ever heard Adams’ debut solo album Heartbreaker knows just how good he is at writing lovelorn ballads and Love Is Hell is chock full of them.
Now, for reasons best known to Lost Highway, the first instalment of Love Is Hell is being released simultaneously with Adams’ other new album Rock N Roll and the two records couldn’t be more different. Whereas Rock N Roll has the amp volume cranked up to 11 and guitars are thrashed like there’s no tomorrow, Love Is Hell Part 1 shows off Adams’ quieter side.
The irony for the record company is that this is actually a much more successful record than Rock N Roll. It’s not as raw and stripped down as first rumoured, although piano and acoustic guitar feature heavily. What makes this record so good is the atmosphere of sheer devastation that Adams throws over these songs. When you read that Love Is Hell was recorded while a former girlfriend of Adams was dying of cancer, it makes the whole thing almost unbearably poignant.
Adams’ lyrics here are possibly the best he’s ever written. Political Scientist is a case in point, the descriptive nature of the verses conjuring up indelible images and reading like pure poetry. The Radiohead-esque Afraid Not Scared is even better, the more personal nature of the lyrics (“I’m really dying in here, and I’m afraid – no I’m scared…”) really hitting home.
There’s even an astonishingly desolate cover of Oasis‘ Wonderwall which Adams has been playing live for the last year or so. Apparently when Noel Gallagher first heard Adams’ version he was alleged to have said, “It’s your song now.” Adams turns the bare bones of the song inside out and stamps his own mark on it.
There’s also the fragile beauty of The Shadowlands and even the addition of two bonus tracks, the excellent Caterwaul and Halloween. Some may find the second half a bit heavy going – it certainly doesn’t lighten up any – but overall, any Adams fan will be scratching their heads as to why this wasn’t the official release instead of Rock N Roll.
Don’t be put off by the official description of this as an EP – at 10 tracks and 45 minutes long, this could easily pass for a proper album. Part Two follows in December, and anyone who likes this will be chomping at the bit for it to be released. For everyone who likes to wallow in a bit of melancholia, here’s some evidence that while Rock N Roll may disappoint, only love can break your heart.