The day after anyone’s worst nightmarish fantasy of terrorism occurred, I took a long walk around New York City, where I live and work. I was many blocks from the devastation, and life, albeit a more subdued form of it, was carrying on in supermarkets and bistros, on the sidewalks, and in traffic tie-ups. Making the experience even more surreal, I was listening to a copy of Ryan Adams’ Gold. After all, there was work to do.
Up until that point, Adams’ album, one of the most buzzed-about releases of the year, had left me mildly indifferent. The former member of the alt-country band Whiskeytown has a strong sense of songcrafting, but his bland rasp wasn’t very commanding, and the arrangements never met a roots-rock cliché they didn’t like. But on that day I hit ”play” without thinking, and on came the opener, ”New York, New York.” I had heard it several times already, this song teeming with images of a throbbing, ramshackle city and of someone muddling his way through it and a failed relationship; at the end, he leaves town. But now the tune sounded different. The robust Who-style power chords felt energizing. And then there was the chorus’ recurring line — ”Hell, I still love you, New York” — which said everything about finding a reason to stay.
With music, context can be everything, and I can’t think of a better example. Heard in the aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center, ”New York, New York” now feels cathartic and healing in ways it never did before. The same is true of the rest of ”Gold.” In light of this recent horror, the album’s sprawling tour through American music, from coast to beer-stained coast, is like a diner full of comfort food. Its songs encompass melancholic country-folk (”When the Stars Go Blue” and ”Harder Now That It’s Over” are two highlights), jejune boogie (”Tina Toledo’s Street Walkin’ Blues”), folk-gospel (”The Rescue Blues”), and singer-songwriter brooding (”Sylvia Plath”). For me, the familiarity of the genre and its presentation became a blanket to curl up under. And Adams, for all the hand-me-down nature of his music and his degenerate-rebel image, sounds like a healer.