Column: It's Beautiful (Sorta)
Greetings from Coast Highway, or,
The Only Roses for Me are the Cold Ones
It recently occurred to me that my last.fm account (which, if you’re curious, you can find here [Edit: I got sick of it and deleted it, I know the link doesn't work anymore]) doesn’t quite do justice to the full breadth of the music I listen to. Most importantly, it excludes the music I listen to on the iPod-to-tapedeck setup I have in my car and the ridiculous amount of time I spend driving, most of which is simply for relaxation and a chance to unwind. And while, for the most part, the songs I listen to in my room or around the house are pretty similar to those I listen to while driving around aimlessly, there’s one artist, and specifically one album, that I reserve almost exclusively for the road.
I’ve been a Ryan Adams fan since I heard his version of “Wonderwall” and bought “Love Is Hell” and “Rock N Roll” in 2004. When “Cold Roses” was released in early 2005, my growing affection led me straight to it, despite its strange packaging. (Seriously, it’s a two-disc album, but you can fit all eighteen songs on one standard CD. Why on earth would you package something like that? The first thing I did upon arriving home was burn all the songs onto one CD.) At the time—way back when I had no iPod and no laptop on which to stuff all my music—I listened to most of my music on the CD player in my car, and so my first few listens of “Cold Roses” occurred on my various outings around town. Little did I know how much the album would come to mean to me, and how it would be the one album to never leave my car’s CD case.
I think there’s little disagreement concerning the fact that some of the best on-the-road albums somehow relate to alt-country. The driving rhythm, the fluid transitions, the vocals that simply invite sing-alongs—these things all constitute really great driving music. Ryan Adams & the Cardinals’ “Cold Roses” had all these things down pat.
But what makes this album even more suited for the road than its alt-country leanings is the perspective that it gives the world as viewed from the driver’s seat. I will give you a brief introduction to the album before elaborating on this.
“Cold Roses” is probably the most honest album I can think of. There’s no shiny production here, no wild experimentation, no over-ambitious lyrics to be found anywhere. Adams’ lyrics focus strictly on what he knows: relationships, friends, sadness, and God, to name a few. His imagery draws mainly from the catalogue of images from southern nature. In his songs simple natural beings like rocks, mountains, rivers, roses, mockingbirds, the sky, blossoms, horses, and fields are the core figurative language. The lyrics are often clichéd, but the simplicity and passion by which they are approached overcome unoriginal verses with startling honest. Some examples:
“There’s something about you / that reminds me of all those times / that I wasn’t sorry, that I wasn’t blue.”
“I wanna be the one who walks you / the one who walks you home tonight / stare into her eyes and then try to explain it / try and explain it / but this shit just fucks you up / and I can never get close enough / I can never get close / I can never get close enough / I can never get close enough to you / to you.”
“All I wanna do is get up / is get up / is get up in the morning / in the morning and not wanna die / I feel alright when I think about you.”
“I would’ve held your mother’s hand / on the day you was born / she runs through my veins like a long, black river / and rattles my cage like a thunderstorm / oh, my soul.”
“I wanna see you tonight / dancing in the endless moonlight / in the parking lot / in the headlights of cars / someplace over the moon.”
The album is full of such wonderful moments for this reason. It’s clear for the first time that Ryan Adams isn’t hiding or exaggerating anything: this is the world according to him, sad and confusing but occasionally happy, grateful, and reverent. This is the sort of mindset that’s extremely easy—at least for people like me—to relate to. So many things are sad and shitty, but we’re still foolish enough to have hope, to look for beauty, to put confidence in some sort of meaning, to blindly follow some notion of God.
And it’s on the road that this makes the most sense. From the inside a car you have the sense of seeing what, to you, is essentially the whole world in all its beauty and folly. The irony of a highway running along the beautiful sands and waves of the beach, the lamp posts that block out the stars, the howling of trains, car accidents, people on cell phones, people dining at restaurants, trees housed in cement planters, the smoke spewing from the back of garbage trucks, kids riding bikes along the sidewalk, runners sweating in the afternoon sun, cars driving recklessly, cars driving clearly five miles under the speed limit, lingering stoplights, armies of stop signs, highway on ramps—this is the world as I and many people know it. This is the sad and shitty world that Ryan Adams is still trying to work through, and for some reason I can identify that and share in that when the world is happening all around me. From the isolated environment that is my driver’s seat, with an acoustic guitar chugging at the pace of the passing of the road beneath the wheels, “Cold Roses” simply puts all things in their right place.
The sort of honesty Adams’ presents on “Cold Roses” is the kind that doesn’t grow old, because it’s too true to be limited to a certain point in my life, or certain circumstances that makes it real. It’s the album I listen to when I feel lonely, when I just need to drive around for a while, when I’ve just spent an evening with a girl I love, when I need to calm down, when I need to come to terms with something, when I just sat and talked with a dear friend for several hours. It puts everything into the context of what the world really is and, in bringing me back to the perspective of reality, makes what I see and experience more real and more meaningful.
I would have written an album review of “Cold Roses”, but I realize now that the album isn’t so much good or exceptional as it is meaningful to me. This is a relationship, a love affair with something honest enough to know its own limits as well as its own potential. The music and words itself can get repetitive, clichéd, and even a little lengthy, but sometimes the truth is so good to hear that these things don’t even matter. For now, and for many years to come, any and all therapy I need will be in my car, driving up and down Coast Highway with Ryan Adams & the Cardinals.
Ryan Adams & The Cardinals - Sweet Illusion
Ryan Adams & The Cardinals - Cherry Lane
Ryan Adams & The Cardinals - Let It Ride
- Dominick Duhamel -
Tags: Ryan Adams, Cold Roses, Coast Highway, mp3