Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ryan Adams: Love Is Hell

My last official post in the Ryan Adams Spotlight (since filled in with Viva la Vinyls and an Evolution of Song) was way back in March. In my Rock N Roll review, I mentioned that Love Is Hell was supposed to be the follow up to Demolition but was rejected (or rather put on the back-burner) by Lost Highway. Ryan subsequently recorded Rock N Roll to assuage his label, who released the blistering disc in November of 2003. And as reciprocation, Lost Highway also quietly released Love is Hell, Pt 1 the same day. The remainder of the selection of songs that would eventually become the complete collection were released as Love Is Hell, Pt 2 a month later in December of 2003. It wasn't until May of '04 that the label felt it necessary to re-issue the collection as one complete set.

Ryan says LIH is "a lot like Heartbreaker, but better and more severe." I can get on board with the latter. "It's complex and it's damaged, a genuine, freaked-out, psychedelic wall of soundscape, and I think for subject matter it can't be beat." As far as subject matter goes - and while we're making Heartbreaker comparisons - it's much more personal in content than his debut. He also says its "me totally being me. It was the record I needed to make." But if Ryan has ever been accused of being the sad-bastard type of singer/songwriter, then LIH is him at his sad-bastardest.

The album isn't his strongest, either looking forward or back, but it may just contain some of his strongest and most underrated songs. The sad part is, none of these come until the latter part of the album (or Pt. 2, if you prefer the EPs). This may be the reason that the album never became a fan favorite or was ever referred to as one of his better albums. If I were a casual listener, I would have a hard time making it to Side 2 before giving up on the album. It begins with the weakest album-opener in his repertoire, 'Politcal Scientist'. 'Afraid Not Scared' follows only to bore me further, going so far as to slightly annoy me with its repetitious, droll lines. Each of the 5 or so opening tracks can be considered a microcosm for the entire album itself: sure, there are some good (even great) parts, but on the whole, the depressing, metallic feel of it all overwhelms.

Attention must be payed to track 5, his impassioned version of the Gallagher Brothers' 'Wonderwall,' and the only cover song Ryan has put on a full release. For that reason, it may have seemed like a strange choice, but the sentiment he extracts from the song in his version is completely in line with the rest of the disc - and that's the magic of a carefully chosen cover. Ryan brings the tune down to a creeping tempo, keeps the reverb to a haunting level, and completely sells it as something born from himself.

I feel like Love Is Hell doesn't quite get started until the 2:38 mark of 'Shadowlands' when the voice effect is removed, the string section picks up, and the first glimpse of optimism is injected into the album. It is at this part, with an inspiring electric lead riff, I find myself for the first time interested in what Ryan has to say. The acoustic lead into the hopeful melody of 'World War 24' continues this trend and begins the transition into the Love Is Hell that I've grown to love. Although 'Avalanche' slows things down for a bit, I think it's the strongest song up to this point in the record. It shows Ryan singing in a more natural voice and also opening up lyrically. Each of the songs leading up to it have been somewhat veiled in metaphor, but - aside from the blatant metaphor of the title - 'Avalanche' is pure and honest.

If necessary, I could scrap Love Is Hell, Pt 1 forever and be just as satisfied with the second disc as I am with it in its entirety. Aside from another slightly weak opener with 'My Blue Manhattan,' the remaining seven songs that make up EP2 and sides 3&4 of the vinyl are what make Love Is Hell a great album. In 'Please Do Not Let Me Go,' he speaks of a girl that was "sweet enough to sing, oblivious to melody." That's a quality Ryan and his subject don't share - at least not with this album. While the music and lyrics aren't his best, Love Is Hell holds some of his most inventive melodies. The strongest of which comes in the plaintive yet powerful 'I See Monsters.' The song has seen a live maturation into a more electric ballad the likes of 'What Sin' but retains its acoustic intimacy each time he repeats the title line. This song may be the sole stand-out track from the album.

The jaunty 'English Girls' lightens up an otherwise darkened album with a shout out to his British love at the time, Leona Naess, in which he somehow manages to make the words "you meant everything" more powerful than another famous string of three words. To finish the album, Ryan turns the blues knob up to 11 and summons the Purple Rain gods for a slow-building tune with a smoldering electric solo. 'Hotel Chelsea Nights' is a perfect, albeit ill-fitting end to album that is similarly disjunct, strangely-timed, yet somehow just right.


I mentioned the various incarnations and formats that Love Is Hell was released upon. With each version, save the already cramped double disc 10" vinyl, Ryan supplied bonus tracks. As always with these review posts, I suggest you get a hold of the album on your own but will supply you with these harder-to-find extra songs.

Love Is Hell, Pt 1 UK Bonus Tracks:
Caterwaul (w/ Leona Naess on Vocals)

Love Is Hell, Pt 2 UK Bonus Tracks:
Fuck The Universe (aka Faker)
Twice As Bad As Love

The info was hard to track down, but apparently Love Is Hell was released in 2007 in Japan and came with a complete bonus disc. It included the above tracks as well as the following (previously unreleased) songs. Some of these had appeared on a bootleg collection known as Black Clouds. These extra tracks are much more modest recordings and far more listenable than the first two from each disc above.

My Father's Son
Gimme Sunshine
Black Clouds

Purchase Love Is Hell:
[Full CD/MP3] [Pt 1 CD/MP3] [Pt 2 CD/MP3]
[Japanese Bonus Version]


  1. Love the record, never met an RA fan who doesn't like LIH1 as much as LIH2 though! Interesting review. Thanks for sharing.

  2. What about 'This House Is Not For Sale'? One of the best songs he's ever written.

  3. Great song. I don't know about one of the best ever written.

    It is one of the best on LIH1, though. I didn't mean to spend time on every song, and that simply got passed up. I have thought about dissecting it on its own post, however, mentioning the rumor that it was inspired by the Beetlejuice movie.

  4. My favorite of his, in all its incarnations. I don't agree with everything you said-- you like it a lot less than I do--but nice to see something written on it.

  5. Agree on your thoughts as this being a mixed bag to which served the purposes of everyone (RY/LH etc) but didn't satisfy anyone...Ry's career in one.

    Split sessions (NYNY/NO), arguments with the MAN on content, as well as a remix and Porter at the controls. Not the best signs for a classic...but out of adversity there it is..a mini classic in most Adams fans eyes.

    Mostly great songs but with an 'odd' metallic mix by Porter (horrible early Smiths sound anyone?) and listening to the original NY Sessions mix, it was fine as it was.....hmmm... but we wouldn't have got the much better NO's tracks!

    Personally, I think the unreleased New Orleans sessions material/LiH b sides would make a fine LiH 2 package...Vampire/Witch Hunt/Stumblin' please and asap.

  6. I love both parts of love is hell and acutally at times i find part one more engaging than part two, but i think it's best listened to as a whole and i dont have a problem with a song like political scientist being the opener, its perfect to me.

  7. Heya,

    Love the spotlights man. Don't want to sound like a gossip, but my understanding was 'English Girls...' was about Beth Orton, not Leona Naess. Lyrics include, 'So come on Elizabeth, come on a Bethany...'.


  8. Part two, with English Girls, I See Monsters, Please Do Not Let Me Go and Hotel Chelsea Nights, weights the second disc/half/side heavily. I have to side with Payton on this. Thanks for the hard-to-get stuff!


  9. I share your sentiments almost exactly. Pt. 2 is phenomenal, Pt. 1 not so much. thanks for another thoughtful review.

  10. He is very good, an excellent musician, I think he was at some point a little misunderstood, but what is important at the end is his music.