Ryan Adams – The Suicide Handbook

The Suicide Handbook (Unreleased, rec. 2001)

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1. Wild Flowers 2. Perfect And True 3. Tell It To My Heart 4. She Wants To Play Hearts 5. Pretenders 6. Famous Eyes 7. Touch, Feel & Lose 8. Firecracker 9. La Cienega Just Smiled 10. For No One 11. You Don’t Know Me 12. Bow To The Sad Lady 13. Off Broadway 14. Cracks In A Photograph 15. I’m Waiting 16. Cry On Demand 17. Miss Sunflower 18. Just Saying Hi 19. California Love 20. Idiots Rule The World 21. Dear Chicago

 

More acoustic stuff, thank god. Even more stripped down and lower fidelity than either Destroyer or Heartbreaker, too, but just as heart-stoppingly gorgeous. There are performances here that approach Pink Moon-level beauty. Not all of them, mind you, but a couple.

Now, before I go any further I want to address the dichotomy of acoustic Ryan vs. electric Ryan. Now that I’m nine reviews into his catalog (going back to my Whiskeytown reviews), I’ve generally praised Ryan’s acoustic and country-influenced songwriting while expressing an attitude toward his “rock” material ranging from indifference to outright derision (this will not change. Just wait until I tear Rock N Roll a new asshole!). Based on this, you may be apt to conclude that I am someone who believes that if a performer plays a song on an acoustic guitar automatically makes he or she sound more sincere than if that same performer played the song using an orchestra of Moog synthesizers and a 32-piece drum set. Why, I even used the term “frighteningly insincere” in reference to the Pinkhearts in my last review. However, this is simply not the case. In fact, I don’t even particularly care how sincere an artist is as long a they can move me in some way, whether physically or emotionally. Bob Dylan was full of shit 90% of the time and he’s my favorite singer-songwriter who ever lived. On the other hand, the guy from Mumford & Sons spends his free time sitting in his living room naked with an acoustic guitar (I’m pretty sure I once read him actually admit this in an interview) pouring all his innermost feelings into his songs, and he sucks balls. But more to the point, any form of music, including playing solo acoustic, can be a total put on, just as any form can be used to express pure and absolute truth or whatever it is you people want out of your troubadours.

As for me, all I really want from any musician are great melodies and lyrics that don’t make me cringe (any other positive attributes beyond that are just a bonus as far as I’m concerned). That’s what I get from early acoustic Ryan. All I get from his self-consciously “rock” material are cheesy, riffless pastiches of the kind of shit the 13-year old Ryan used to hear over the PA system while he was trolling the mall back in North Carolina in the 80s. The problem with it isn’t that it’s necessarily insincere… it’s that it’s just not usually very well-written music.

The Suicide Handbook, however, is. Recorded in Nashville in January 2001 and featuring only Ryan on acoustic guitar and vocals and Bucky Baxter on acoustic guitar, expertly played acoustic slide guitar, occasional piano, and backup vocals, Ryan had this double album pegged for his first post-Heartbreaker release, but was duly rebuked by the record company. They released the much more commercial Gold that summer instead. Unsurprisingly, they found Handbook “too depressing” or some such shit. Whatever. Are there a bunch of really sad love songs on here? Yes. Is the mewing croon Ryan uses on here enough to break hearts from here to Katmandu alone? Absolutely. Does he mention “thinking some of suicide” in the brilliant kiss-off song “Dear Chicago”? Yup. But isn’t that exactly the kind of shit people want from singer-songwriters? Just what the hell was I ranting about a couple of paragraphs ago anyway? Nothing? (That’s possible).

More than likely, it was the lack of instrumentation that scared off Lost Highway more than anything, and while I’d definitely love to hear what some of these songs would sound like more fleshed out, it’s hard to complain about the form they’re in. Five songs that would later appear on Gold also appear here and these acoustic versions kick the shit out of their slick, overproduced counterparts. “Touch, Feel & Lose” is especially a revelation, as here it’s a truly soulful powerhouse rather than a corny-ass plastic gospel exercise like on Gold. Demolition owners will also recognize the sad sack breakup songs “She Wants To Play Hearts,” the masterful, piano-adorned “Cry On Demand,” and the aforementioned “Dear Chicago.” One song, “Off Broadway,” even ended up on Easy Tiger in 2007. The rest remains criminally unreleased (though hardly for being any weaker than the tunes that were released – “You Don’t Know Me” and “Bow To The Sad Lady” may be two of the best songs Ryan has ever written, and you’ve never heard them!).

You may think it would be boring and monotonous to sit through 80 minutes of (nearly) solo acoustic stuff, especially when the guy is mostly just singing about breaking up with his girlfriend(s) (Ryan was dating, among others, Winona Ryder around this time and several of the songs are about her. Wotta starfucker that guy is!). But the relentless prettiness and melodicism just keeps coming and by the time it’s over, I find myself wishing it could go on for just a little bit longer. Sure I could do without a couple of the more laid back, El Lay lounge-style tunes, and especially the wildly out of place drum-machine-and-piano ballad “Idiots Rule The World,” which pops up at the very end. There’s also the fact that the chorus of “Cracks In A Photograph” sounds exactly like the chorus 2001 epically bad radio rock smash hit “Hanging By A Moment” by Lifehouse, which I didn’t realize until I read someone mention it online recently and now I can never unhear the similarity, much to my dismay. The bootleg-quality fidelity and occasional tape glitches are also a bummer, especially when one can find a lot of Ryan’s other unreleased stuff in relatively pristine quality. But overall, Handbook is nearly as beautiful and essential as Heartbreaker.



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