Noel Gallagher’s reverse-chronology comparison standard, and how it applies to Ryan Adams

Noel Gallagher’s reverse-chronology comparison standard, and how it applies to Ryan Adams

Chuck Klosterman’s profile of ex-Oasis guitarist and band leader Noel Gallagher for Grantland is one of 2011’s best pieces of rock writing, and it’s almost entirely due to Gallagher himself. In fact, a list of Gallagher’s quotes from this story would be nearly as good of a read, and certainly a lot more efficient. (On his ego: “I never said that I was the greatest thing since Lennon and McCartney ... well, actually, I’m lying. I probably did say that once or twice in interviews.”) Gallagher is rightly celebrated for penning some of the finest pint-hoisting anthems of the Brit-pop era, but in recent years he’s found his true calling as a witty and surprisingly trenchant interview subject. (On Oasis’ infamous Waterloo, 1997’s Be Here Now: “Just imagine if that album had sold 30 million copies. I probably would have grown a mustache and started wearing a fucking cape.”) In the Grantland story, Gallagher also made maybe the most brilliant critical observation about how artists are judged that I’ve come across in a long time. 

It occurred when Gallagher was talking about the impact that Be Here Now’s critical and commercial failure—relatively speaking, for a record that went platinum eight times—had on the subsequent perception of Oasis’ career. After the highs of the band’s first two albums, 1994’s Definitely Maybe and 1995’s (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?, the inferior Be Here Now was taken as a sign of the band’s artistic disintegration, and every Oasis record after that was seen in that light. Heard on its own, Be Here Now is an overly indulgent record with some good songs weighed down by an abundance of guitar solos and orchestras. But compared with what came before, it sounds so much worse, like a band that has lost touch with everything that once made it great—not to mention any semblance of reality. 

Artists hate it when you compare their new work with their old work, because 1) it’s unfair and 2) it inadvertently (but inevitability) punishes anyone good enough to have produced work worthy of comparison. At some point, you’re going to put out something that’s comparably “lesser” than what came before—not bad, just less. And once that happens, people start to look at you differently. The old glow dissipates. Every great artist has two choices: You falter on your own, probably because somebody gives you too much money to realize your craziest, most misguided ambitions, and in the process you get swallowed up by your own megalomania. Or you don’t falter, and create an ever-escalating standard of quality for yourself that eventually becomes impossible satisfy, which just makes it seem like you’ve faltered. (If this were still the ’70s, there would be a third option: Fall in love with Cybill Shepherd.) Any way, you lose. 

Gallagher wasn’t arguing against measuring an artist’s output against itself. (Perhaps because every fan of every artist practicing in every artistic discipline does it anyway.) Gallagher is too pragmatic to wish for his albums to be judged in a vacuum. What he proposes instead (and this is the brilliant part) is that people look at his career in reverse:

Let’s say my career had gone backwards. Let say this new solo album had been my debut, and it was my last two records that sold 20 million copies instead of the first two records. Had this been the case, all the other albums leading up to those last two would be considered a fucking journey. They would be perceived as albums that represent the road to greatness. But just because it started off great doesn’t make those other albums any less of a journey. I’ll use an American football analogy since we’re in America: Let’s say you’re behind with two minutes to go and you come back to tie the game. It almost feels like you’ve won. Right? But let’s say you’ve been ahead the whole game and you allow the opponent to tie things up in the final two minutes. Then it feels like you’ve lost. But the fact of the matter is it’s still a fucking tie. 

Gallagher’s point here seems so obvious and true that I can’t believe that Lester Bangs or Joe Carducci (or Klosterman) didn’t already come up with it. If you flip the direction of Oasis’ discography and compare the albums in backwards order, Be Here Now suddenly seems like the work of a slowly evolving trad-rock band taking a grandly ambitious stab at a masterpiece and falling short. It’s an interesting failed experiment before the twin achievements of Maybe and Story, the kind of record that fans eventually come to regard as “criminally underrated. 

Thinking this way seems like cheating—or at least awfully convenient for a guy who hasn’t put out a truly outstanding album in 16 years. After all, Be Here Now did actually put an end Oasis’ glory years, and subverting the time-space continuum won’t change that. But still, when it comes to assessing the success or failure of Gallagher’s career in retrospect, it does offer an interesting (and somewhat persuasive) alternate view.

Implicit in Gallagher’s newfangled reverse-chronology comparison standard—I’m open to a catchier, pithier name—is the knowledge that no matter how successful you are at putting across a personal vision in your art, the act of piecing that work together into a career narrative will be performed by other people. And each new piece will be folded into that narrative—as a return to form, a disappointing setback, or the ho-hum status quo.

Sometimes my colleagues who review TV shows talk about the challenge of reviewing episodes piecemeal, without having a sense of how they fit into the overall structure of a season. But music critics are tasked with doing the same thing with albums in the context of careers. It’s not always clear what is significant in the overall arc of an artist’s discography (or the music world in general) until many years later. For all the albums that were instant classics and immediately adored by critics, there’s an 808s And Heartbreak or Pinkerton (or Black Sabbath’s entire ’70s canon) that had to patiently wait for acknowledgement. 

And then there’s Ryan Adams, who seems stuck in a perpetual cycle of beatdowns at the hands of his own catalog. If you don’t believe me, just ask him; when I interviewed Adams recently, he talked (and occasionally ranted) about the “positively weird behavior” of fans and record reviewers when it comes to pitting artists (or a particular artist’s albums) against each other. “It’s kind of hard to explain this, but there’s this weird illness with people where it’s almost like they view their [favorite] artist as a football team, or something, and all other artists are another team,” he said. “You put out a new record, and it’s like, ‘Tonight at Dodger Stadium, it’s the Easy Tigers versus the Heartbreakers.’ It’s super-competitive, and it’s a highly judgmental place for a place that should be free of judgment.” 

In many ways, Adams’ entire career has been defined by his solo debut, 2000’s Heartbreaker. It’s the record that every new Ryan Adams album is compared against, and in the end Heartbreaker nearly always wins. Only Nas’ 1994 debut Illmatic casts a longer shadow over its creator’s other output. This seems wrong (at least to me, since I greatly prefer Love Is Hell and Cold Roses), but it’s impossible to miss when reading Adams’ reviews. 

Still, from Adams’ perspective, it’s a little more complicated than simply topping Heartbreaker. He insists that each new record he puts out is actually compared with the previous release—which, strangely, seems to always help the critical reputation of the previous record: 

What happens is, I make records, and people assassinate the record, usually, that I’m making. I made Love Is Hell, and people panned it really unnecessarily; there was harshness around it. Then, only a little bit of time passed, and people would fucking bring that record up as something that I wasn’t doing, which is why my current records were “shit.” Then I did Cold Roses, and people said it was too long, and that it should’ve been condensed into one CD … and then I made more records, and they were like, “It’s not as good as Cold Roses.”

Adams admitted during our interview that his latest album, Ashes & Fire, was a conscious attempt to make a “Ryan Adams record”—a folkie, country-sounding batch of easygoing tunes that fans of Heartbreaker would appreciate. He did it partly out of frustration over the abuse he’s taken on the Internet for his many stylistic diversions over the years. “On some level, I’m like, ‘Well, then fucking why even do that? I’ll play some seriously badass Tooth And Nail-era, Dokken-style, Satanic guitar shit for fun. I don’t gotta put that shit on my records.’”

Gallagher’s interview obviously came out long after Adams finished Ashes & Fire. But the record has nonetheless put Adams’ career in reverse, placing an album in the mode of what’s perceived to be his greatest triumph firmly in the present tense, as the seeming culmination of a long journey. And while that wasn’t exactly Adams’ intent, it appears to have worked perfectly: Ashes & Fire has garnered Adams’ highest Metacritic score for a full-length album since 2002’s Gold. (Heartbreaker isn’t included in the rankings.) Just imagine how good critics will think Ashes & Fire is when Adams puts out his next record.