The more I write, the less I really know what happens. You get an idea for a song. Well, where does that come from? I don’t know. You just hear a phrase or a little something that just catches you; it’s almost like somebody else takes over and does it. It’s not actually me. I’m the fella that does the guy’s interviews, I make his records for him, I put the chords together, but it’s not really me, not the good stuff. If this guy, this feeling, whatever it is, doesn’t come around for awhile, then I’ll say to myself, well, I know how to do it, I’ve seen the guy doing it, I’ll write a song. But my stuff, the guy who’s talking to you right now, does terrible impersonations of his stuff. His stuff is way better than mine. I know this sounds really pretentious and bad, but it’s not an original thought. I’ve heard lots of people, painters and writers, describe in different words exactly the same thing.
– Nick Lowe
That little bit of wisdom came from the interview contributing editor David Cantwell conducted with Nick Lowe for the lengthy feature story in this issue. Though Cantwell couldn’t quite find the right place to work those thoughts into his article, he passed them along to us on the off-chance they might serve a purpose in some way or another.
As often happens when we’re putting together an issue of No Depression, its various pieces end up referring to each other in ways we might not have envisioned. In this instance, Lowe’s leftover passage led me to ponder the paths of Gillian Welch, whose new album Time (The Revelator) is the subject of our cover story, and Ryan Adams, whose new album Gold is reviewed in the Waxed section.
A year ago, Welch and Adams seemed on a similar track, enough so that Adams’ solo debut Heartbreaker featured Welch and her partner David Rawlings prominently. Adams had moved to Nashville, and they did some shows together, sometimes exploring rawer, noisier avenues (not unlike the Welch/Rawlings side-project the Esquires), sometimes pursuing starkly acoustic visions (including an Adams solo show in which he and Welch dueted on her new album’s classic opening track, “Revelator”).
Welch and Rawlings subsequently spent their time mostly in Nashville finishing up their album, just the two of them recording in the studio, and reclaiming their music from the major-label ranks by forming Acony Records. Adams, who signed with new Mercury imprint Lost Highway shortly after his one-off Bloodshot deal for Heartbreaker, wound up largely gravitating toward Hollywood, taking up at least part-time residence in Los Angeles and making Gold out there with a broad cast of supporting players and guest artists.
The resulting records are about as different as night and day.
My initial assessment of Time (The Revelator), after having spent a few days with it, was that it is the first great record of this decade. After having spent a few weeks with it, I’m inclined to suggest it would belong among the truly great records of any decade. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why; so many of its songs seem borne of destiny, as if they answered a calling more than they were willed into existence by their author. As if, to get back to Nick’s notes, somebody else took over and did it.
And then there is Gold. Temptation (eventually and rightly avoided, I expect) was to run a one-word review of the album: “Pyrite.” Though such brevity would be disrespectful of the effort that obviously went into the record, its precision strikes at the heart of the matter: Adams is fooling himself. His previous releases (not to mention scores of unreleased tracks) reveal an artist with a genuine gift for melody and songcraft, and for capturing the elusive emotional impact at the center of the musical experience. Gold doesn’t sound like that artist; it sounds like the guy who does terrible impersonations of his stuff.
What Lowe doesn’t reveal is how to summon the inner voice who “takes over and does it.” There may be no answer; yet clearly, as Lowe’s own experience attests, it’s possible to return to that place, to that clarity of expression. And it’s worth striving for; indeed, it’s what I’ve been striving to attain even as I’ve written these words.