Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na <del>BATMAN</del> Ryan Adams

Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na BATMAN Ryan Adams

Upon taking the stage at the Regent Theatre, Ryan Adams thanked the audience. “I’m excited to share my feelings with you,” he revealed. And share his feelings he did – starting with a slow, gentle rendition of “Oh My Sweet Carolina” from 2000’s classic Heartbreaker, before taking us on a lengthy amble through his extensive back catalogue. There was the expected emphasis on songs from last year’s Ashes & Fire, but with a generous helping of older material, including a version of “16 Days”, from his former band Whiskeytown.

Unlike his last visit to New Zealand, Adams performed without a backing band. He was alone on stage, with only guitar, piano and harmonica for company, and as a result the 20-odd songs he played were completely stripped back. Gone were the organ and power chords from “New York, New York”; instead we just had Adams on piano and softly-sung vocals, his back to a crowd who clung on to every word. Much of the time he performed seated. The focus was on his voice and lyrics and, given his skill as a songwriter, it was perfect.

Yet Adams’s opening statement about sharing his feelings had been delivered in a sarcastic manner, without any enthusiasm. In many ways, this set the tone for the night. Adams is aware of his reputation for churlishness, and he played up to it. He introduced “Dear Chicago” as “a summertime song, for listening to when in a speed boat or riding a dune buggy” – deliberately ironic, because the song is anything but. It is a painful account of lost love, where the narrator, upon finding himself alone, reveals “Nothing breathes here in the cold/Nothing moves or even smiles/I’ve been thinking some of suicide”.

Although at first funny, the novelty of Adams’s self-awareness of the sombre nature of his music began to wear off as the evening progressed. Throughout the concert the songs were to be punctuated with comments and stories that suggested that he wasn’t taking himself, the crowd, or his music, seriously. At times, his self-deprecation threatened to become the main act and detract from the music. It becomes hard to believe in the pain and sorrow which are so delicately and skilfully woven into songs you are hearing performed, when the artist has just told you that he feigns these emotions when singing to you by imagining he has suffered gruesome sporting injuries.

A low point for me was in “Sylvia Plath”, a slow number on piano, where Adams broke out of character mid-song – twice – to take the piss out of the audience and then his songwriting. Was it a charade, an act? If you bought into the images and feelings his lyrics conjure up, was the joke really on you?

I had these doubts, and I resented them, but eventually they were rendered trivial by how good each individual song was. In “Come Pick Me Up”, Adams sings: “When you’re walking downtown, do you wish I was there, do you wish it was me/With the windows clear, and the mannequins’ eyes, do they all look like mine?” Even if Adams had to keep telling us, truthfully or not, that he was just acting when he embraced the loneliness and longing captured in these words, I just stopped caring. It ceased to matter to me whether Adams was thinking of a broken leg or a broken heart while he sang.

And to be fair, a lot of the time Adams’s humour was spot-on. Whether it was pretending he was so sick of his own music that he was actually listening to an album by Journey on in-ear headphones while singing, or performing the hilarious improvised “Mr. Cat”, the crowd bought into most of his jokes. He got kudos from the Dunedin crowd by covering The Verlaines, too. I don’t have the man figured out but, in the end, the music was good enough that he could have got away with a lot worse.

– Josh Pemberton
This article first appeared in Issue 3, 2012.
Posted 6:37pm Sunday 11th March 2012 by Josh Pemberton.