Ryan Adams’s chief asset as a songwriter is arguably his ability to mold his struggles in articulate chunks that the average listener can really take to heart. He certainly got the opportunity to flex this muscle during his Whiskeytown days, particularly around the recording of Strangers Almanac.
The album was born out of deep turmoil, with bassist Steve Grothman and drummer Skillet Gilmore having just left the band, Ryan Adams and guitarist Phil Wandscher reaching the crest of their turbulent relationship, sometimes culminating in physical blows, and violinist Caitlin Cary finding herself assuming the role of mediator. It was this severe instability that miraculously gave birth to a musical harmony like no other.
Caught somewhere between the ragged charisma of Faithless Street and the superficially influenced Pneumonia, Strangers Almanac rose from the chaos, with the project’s main structural support coming from producer Jim Scott’s sheer force of will. The album would prove to be the band’s crowning achievement, but it also saw Ryan Adams forcing himself into the spotlight. These recording sessions were an embodiment of what the band had accomplished together, as well as a middle ground between Adams’s ambition and a realistic perspective of his role in the world of music.
Starting the record off with a bang, “Inn Town” exquisitely displayed the band’s ability to form a three-part harmony. Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary continuously seemed to bring out the best in one another musically, striking a tremendous vocal blend. Throughout the record, Cary’s supporting vocals always work to fortify the song without ever being intrusive. Her magnificent contributions to the band can be found on this track about revisiting the past. As the speaker wanders through his hometown, he realizes that there is nothing left for him. The bittersweet relief that comes with returning home is fleeting, as even “I feel fine” is followed by the ominous “for now.”
Cranking up the tempo is “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight,” a honky tonk tribute to the band’s musical idols. Straight out of a smoky, Southern dive bar, the song comes complete with slide guitar, harmonica, and even a recorded countdown as an intro. For the cherry atop the cake, Whiskeytown brought on alt country perennial Alejandro Escovedo to sing a verse. It is a gorgeous song about giving yourself over to your emotions, often through the aid of alcohol: “The situation keeps me drinking every goddamn day and night.”
While “Yesterday’s News” maintains the emphasis on the twang, it aims for a more contemporary rock sound, similar to what bands like Counting Crows and The Wallflowers were doing at the time. The song doesn’t go very long without leaning into the ever-present high-pitched squeal of the organ. It was with genre-bending tracks like this that Whiskeytown was able to clearly distinguish themselves from the recently dissolved Uncle Tupelo.
In a softer turn, “16 Days” starts as a quiet duet before building into an all-out jam session. Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary complement each other on this tune in a way that is not unlike the musical chemistry between Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. During the rocky tour to promote the album, Adams and Cary would have to bank on this harmony. When Phil Wandscher refused to play another note with the band, the pair would have to finish the tour as an acoustic duo.
Lyrically, “Everything I Do” is an update on a common theme in country music, and it showcases the talents of many of the album’s supporting players. In a much grander sound than we had heard from the band so far, the track features the inclusion of a horn section, as well as Phil Wandscher’s finest guitar playing to date. Much like a tune from The Smiths, “Everything I Do” is deceptively bouncy. It warps itself to fit the mood of its listener, as it could be interpreted as advocating for any one of its seemingly conflicting emotions.
“Houses on the Hill” paints a vivid portrait, with Adams displaying his desire to use his position as a lyricist to focus on narrative storytelling. With its heartbreaking lyrics set to a spirited melody, this song could easily be found on a classic country station, nestled between Merle Haggard and George Jones. It is the perfect soundtrack for drinking late at night in an empty house.
With “Turn Around,” the delicate grind of the acoustic guitar contorts into a twangy lamentation by way of The Cure. It is one of only two songs on the album on which Cary is given a writing credit – the other being “Houses on the Hill” – and her contribution shows, with the subtle anguish found throughout this tale of deceit: “The silence, perfections, mysteries / All easy to fall from your lips / All the while lies were told to me / In shapeless secrets.”
“Dancing with the Women at the Bar” plays with the idea of the collected experience and the repetition of fate, with the focus of the lyrics shifting from the speaker to his father and then eventually to the audience. It’s not difficult to relate to this level of escapism, using the company of others to make yourself feel less lonely: “Man, I love the feel when I go out / Dancing with the women at the bar / Man, I love the feel when I go out / I always know my woman’s close somewhere.”
Strangers Almanac is unlike the other Whiskeytown records, namely because it covers the most musical ground. On “Waiting to Derail,” you won’t find even a trace of the band’s Southern origins. It’s much closer to the alt rock scene of the mid 90s. The lyrics cut to the emotional core of the song’s subject matter, often to the point where they don’t even form complete thoughts: “Wanting, needing, fighting, feeling.”
“Avenues” is a nostalgia trip through the streets of anyone’s hometown. Many people return to their roots, but that’s not to say that we all approach the past the same way: “All the sweethearts of the world / Are out dancing in the places where me and all my friends / Go to hide our faces.” Even as the speaker wanders through his youth, he realizes that it is no longer the home he left behind: “Avenues run one way / Streets they run the same / Something in the air here still keeps me away.”
The thematic crux of the record rests on the shoulders of “Losering.” The song doesn’t follow any sort of conventional lyric structure; in fact, it mostly consists on Adams lingering on a single word at a time. Yet, with all the artificiality that can come along with a standard pop song stripped away, “Losering” cuts to the bone without ever having to vocalize its hypothesis. The speaker doesn’t lay his cards on the table, and still the listener can work out exactly what’s going on in his mind. Almost as if it were a jazz instrumental, there is a sadness to the song that eclipses the need for vocal expression.
“Somebody Remembers the Rose” continues to explore the phrase “Am I still a stranger?,” an idea that Adam would return to throughout his solo career, sometimes quoting it verbatim. The pain lies on the word “still,” implying that the speaker had expended a tremendous amount of effort to be truly known, only to come to the glaring realization that it was all for naught. With the times changing, so many have forgotten the “rose,” and the desire for deeper understanding has fallen to the wayside.
Our journey comes to and end with “Not Home Anymore,” a mesmerizing punctuation mark closing off an album whose thesis is captured by the song’s title. The passing of time alters our idea of home, whether or not we physically leave it behind. The memories of those who have impacted our lives persist, all but becoming literal ghosts. As the song reaches its conclusion, we hear the ringing of an alarm clock, as if the last hour was all simply a dream.
Strangers Almanac is the type of record that makes you want to get a few of your classmates together and start a garage band. It is the perfect introduction to Whiskeytown, with its endearingly gritty edges and staggering emotional core. What we have is an alt country record put together by a songwriter who clearly idolizes Morrissey, a pairing that shouldn’t work and yet found a way to become a crowning achievement of the genre. The album set the band apart from the rest of the No Depression era acts and proved that Ryan Adams was poised for stardom.