In Excruciating Pain and Lovin' It

Love Is Hell (Universal)
Ryan Adams

By Jason Daniels

Let's get one thing straight: This music is seriously depressing. How depressing? Adams' record label turned it down because it was "too dark," prompting Adams to cut a deal and split the album into two EPs, presumably to dole out the sadness in smaller parcels. Does it work? Who cares? Love is Hell has been described as "maudlin," "overwrought," "self-indulgent" and "sentimental," but I'm still wondering what the problem is. I thought music was supposed to be about emoting and purging. And self-indulgent? Isn't this rock 'n' roll? In the true spirit of excess, I'm going to treat this like the single album it was meant to be.

Granted, these discs don't really rock -- shiver is a better word. These songs get under your skin and stay there. If you never liked the Smiths and wonder what's so great about Radiohead, these discs probably aren't for you. Adams' songs cover a series of melancholy topics, including a mother's loss of her son ("Thank You Louise"), neglectful parents ("The Shadowlands") and losing one's home ("This House is Not for Sale"). And certainly, lines like "I'm getting cold and you're not moving" don't exactly brighten your day. But the sparse arrangements and Adams' voice breaking in just the right places make it all work. Think Morrissey without the sense of irony.

These songs benefit from keeping it simple. Most tracks are made up of sparse piano chords, acoustic guitar and some brushes on the drums, a formula that allows the music to breathe and the lyrics to take center stage. Adams' voice is treated with plenty of reverb and with his deft finger-picking, songs like "I See Monsters" and "Thank you Louise" have a moving, ghostly quality.

There are a couple of livelier tunes in the mix - Adams does a dead-on Dylan imitation with "English Girls Approximately" and the title track stomps along fairly hard. But the album's real power lies in the haunting atmospheres of the slow stuff. Adams' version of "Wonderwall" is achingly gorgeous and will likely be responsible for many a fresh tear, as the listener ponders love's futility.

And that's the true message of this record - love is hell and when we make ourselves vulnerable we're likely to be hurt. But we wouldn't want it any other way.