Anatomy of a Song: Shadowlands by Ryan Adams


Love is Hell

Seeing as how this blog is pretty new, I’m still working through which of my interests I’m going to write about (though I’m leaning towards: “All of them”), and how I’m going to approach each one. As those who read my Epic Road Trip Recap know, I am a complete and utter fool for music. I chose my road trip route based on being able to visit cities that are important to America’s music history. Hell, the biggest reason I moved back to New York is because it has a better music scene–specifically the Saturday night jam at Sunny’s, where you can find me playing guitar almost every week. So, there are going to be a lot of posts about music on this blog.

One idea I had is that I can take a look at particular songs that I really like and break them down, give a sort of anatomy of a song. Lately I’ve been listening fairly obsessively to the Ryan Adams album Love is Hell (yeah, I’ve had a bit of a rough month). There are a number of songs on this album worth dissecting, including the cover of Oasis’ Wonderwall, which Noel Gallagher said he prefers to his own arrangement, and the heartbreaking English Girls Approximately (my favorite track on the album, and I pretty much guarantee you’re getting an essay about it at some point), but the song that I’m most fascinated with at the moment is the seventh track on the album, Shadowlands.

Before you read any further, give the song a listen.

Did you like it? Okay. We can still be friends.

You thought it sucked? Well, there’s still hope for you. Let me break down exactly why I think this song is great. Listen again, and this time I’ll walk you through it.

For the first 2:44, the song is entirely piano and vocals, which Adams has done on tracks on other albums, like Heartbreaker’s Sweet Lil’ Gal, or Gold’s Sylvia Plath. This one is even more simple than those–really, it’s about as simple as a song can get, at least at first. Adams strikes the same three chords, over and over, slowly, staying for one beat on the I chord, one beat on the V Chord, four beats on the IV chord (don’t worry, I won’t get anymore technical than that). He doesn’t play any arpeggios or melody lines, just those three chords, bum, bum, bummmm, and there are no other instruments other than a couple of atmospheric, barely audible guitar notes at 1:30.

While he plays those three chords, Adams sings one of his typically bleak songs, with lyrics about prayers for rain, fathers on amphetamines, wedding rings tossed in sewers. I’m not going to break down the lyrics, because in my opinion they’re more impressionistic, about creating a mood (the color of this song is definitely blue) than they are about creating a narrative. The interesting thing is the song resolves lyrically at the end, as you don’t encounter the title until the final verse:

Most people never find a love
Most people never find a love
Sometimes you just can be a man
Sometimes you just can be a man
When you’re living in the darkness
Of the Shadowlands
The Shadowlands

He repeats the final line, and at the 2:44 mark the lyrics are over. But the song is just beginning. Because this is when Adams starts adding layers. As soon as the last word is out of the singer’s mouth, an arrangement of strings takes over, playing a melodic line. For two measures it’s the piano and the strings, and then at 2:56 an acoustic guitar comes in, playing rhythm along with the piano, at first strumming each chord once, but gradually diversifying the strum, filling in the blank spaces left by the piano’s individual chord strikes. At the same time, you hear the same atmospheric electric guitar as played at 1:30, but louder now, the fills more noticeable. All of these elements play together for four measures, until, at 3:21, the drums come in. I don’t know enough about drumming to give you a technical breakdown of the drum track–though it seems pretty simple–but I can  say the drums bring an element of power to the whole thing; the tempo of the song is still slow, but those drums are driving the other instruments forward now.

It’s already a lovely, complex arrangement at this point, but much as the lyrics waited until the end to resolve, the music is still building up to this point, when just barely shy of the end of three full measures from the entry of the drums, the lead electric guitar comes sliding in. The solo isn’t hyper complicated–a scream from outer space like a Hendrix solo, or a religious blues experience like an SRV solo–but it’s perfect for this song, slow yet soaring, with bent notes and the perfect amount of vibrato at the end of each phrase leaving you yearning for more. Just ask B.B. King: the bends and the vibrato are the soul of guitar playing.

The guitar solo goes on for more than 1:40 (the other instruments rising and falling in the mix, but always present), all the way through the fadeout at the end of the song, and every time I listen to it, I find myself rewinding to 3:36 so I can listen to that guitar again.

And that’s Shadowlands, the song I’ve been listening to on a loop for weeks now. It’s a depressing, miserable song that’s so beautiful it makes being depressed and miserable worth it. Well, almost.

Thoughts? Have I changed your opinion on this song at all? Was this a fun post to read?

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10 Responses to Anatomy of a Song: Shadowlands by Ryan Adams

  1. wilsonsawyer says:

    I don’t know if you’ll ever see this comment, as its two years late, but I am seriously obsessed with this song. I discovered it during an all-nighter in architecture school about three years ago, and it quickly became my “all-nighter song” (a single song that I would listen to on repeat to get in the zone and force everything else around me to disappear). It brings back specific memories of being in an empty, dark, quiet studio throughout the night. It was Spring in Knoxville, so the weather wasn’t quite warm, but enough to open a couple windows. All of those circumstances kind of created the environment that I see in my head when I hear this song. Since then, its become a rainy-day-song, or a drive-around-the-country-on-a-clear-night-song.
    There’s a cool tension between the two parts of the song, the first being very specifically sad (“when you’re living in the darkness of the shadowlands” kind of gives me chills) and the second being almost ethereal and uplifting. Its as if he’s saying its ok for you to feel sad, and that things will always turn around. I think that idea comes through sonically as well. The first half of the song is a little grainy and rough, but the last “The Shadowlands” he sings, if you listen carefully, is suddenly very clear. And then the strings and guitars and drums come in, and the whole song makes an upswing. I seriously love this song, almost for the transition part alone. But I’m on your side about the guitar solo; that’s where the song really takes flight. I find myself wanting to be up in the clouds when the moon is out during this song. And now I’m going to listen to it for the rest of the day. Thanks for this.

    • Thanks for leaving the comment, man. Even two years later, it’s nice to know someone connects with a song the same way I do. Cheers

      • Chuck Starks says:

        You guys are both cracking me up. In a good way. I just connected hard with this song as well… Great posts, by the way. Keep it up! Discovered this song in a car ride today in La Jolla, California. Love it. Beautiful memories made. Peace!

  2. Hey there, came here searching for a tab of the solo part. Ok, I realise this is really corny but: I bought Love is Hell on release day. There was a time when I couldn’t listen to this song simply because I felt it was too beautiful and it was only meant to be listened to in a certain mood. I’ve been rediscovering it and it has aged very well. It touches me the same way it used to touch me twelve years ago. Thanks for the text.

  3. When I read this post it came to my mind that the internet is just the most amazing thing one has ever invented.
    This song gives me the chills every time I hear it and sometimes I come home and I just fucking need to hear this song -some people might have the same feeling with smoking a cigarette. This song is in one of my Spotify playlists and I was never really aware of the interprete or name of it. So I couldnt really find it but when I did I instantly had to look up lyrics to finally grasp the meaning (not being an English native this helps for most cases..).But just with the lyrics alone didn’t provide any sense to me so I googled for the meaning and just got on your blog. I think I still don’t really know what it means but just to know that other people feel the same about the song makes me pretty happy. I am not very familiar with music. I was forced as a kid to learn violine and the piano so in the end I always refused and hated it. Readin someone being able to interprete this song by its instruments, blendings, chrods and stuff makes me wish I would have cared more about music rather than just dance to it.
    So thanks for sharing this with the great world wide web enabling someone sitting in Germany to share your thoughts and feelings about a great piece of art. Whatever you are doing right now in your Brooklyn Basement (I didnt get further as to this point in your blog), keep up with it! Thanks!

  4. Pingback: My Top 10 Ryan Adams Songs | From a Brooklyn Basement

  5. Gregg Raybin says:

    I too am obsessed, for several reason. Yes, it’s a simple I-V-VI progression without any changes. But that first chord is suspended, which is a unusual first step. And a song with six beats (“in six”) is quite rare – at least in Western popular music. That unexpected timing, and all the space he leaves between each vocal line creates anticipation and maybe even a subtle disorientation – that add to the vibe. BTW, I’ve listened to several versions of the song, and I’m still not sure if he’s saying CAN or CAN’T be a man. Not that I can be sure what either would mean, anyway.

    • Aubrey Adams says:

      I always thought he was saying CAN’T as it seems more cohesive with “living in the Shadowlands” -as whatever the Shadowlands means for a person (ie.,drug addiction, broken-hearted, feeling like an outcast) compared to what society or common stereotypes of “being a ‘man'” are.

  6. I do not see the color blue. I see dark grey/green. Even dull, light browns. In other words, dreary colors- mostly near grays with Ryan Adam’s lighter, but soft vocal. But each person’s synesthesia is influenced by what they experienced as a youngster, so I cannot fault yours.

  7. I’m popping in all of these years later, to say your post rekindled my appreciation of the Brotherhood of the Internet.

    This song slams hard against so many of my scars. It stirs a melancholy that’s always under the surface, barely separated like oil and water.

    1-5-4 often cues a 30 minute emotional binge of improv at the piano. It brings to mind a hazy summer day, yellow, humid, the kind that inspires instagram filters and fools the mind into a minor mentality.

    As an audio guy, I appreciate how the lyrics are capped by a progressive EQ sweep on his voice that fills out and matures as he unleashes the gut-punch of the title.

    Like others who chimed in here, I can’t stop listening. I’m an unabashed melancholic spirit and this is a long, desperately needed shower in it.

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