The Blackhole Album Story – What We Know (and Ultimately Don’t) About Ryan Adams’s Unreleased Masterpiece

Amidst all of the activity surrounding the release of Ryan Adams’s latest self-titled album (big full-band tour, high-profile TV and radio appearances, many interviews) the latest news about a legendary (at least amongst the Adams faithful) unreleased album titled Blackhole has started to resurface, prompted by Ryan talking about it as well as performing a couple of songs from it.

To understand the Blackhole story, one needs to start in the middle of it. In 2010, Adams released the first of his post-Lost Highway Records releases.

A quick synopsis of his career at that point is that he was famously at odds with his label who had a different idea about what the very prolific Adams should be releasing than he did. A feud was waged in public resulting in compromises on both sides of the relationship– quick cash-ins from the label who put out a compilation record of unreleased material squashing the promise of probably three full albums of songs, Adams spitefully releasing Rock N Roll which he regards as “jokey” as a result of Lost Highway not wanting to put out Love Is Hell as one release. He was let out of his contract following 2008’s Cardinology and granted ownership of all of the unreleased recordings he had created during that time.

But, in 2007 there were plans afoot to put out a box set of the unreleased songs while he was still on Lost Highway. Although I can’t find a direct source for the article, everyone quotes a September 2007 article for Q Magazine where he talks about 20:20 which among other rare albums he would include Blackhole, saying, “It’s like a real serious effort to make a rock record, really epic and big. None of those absurdist jokey lyrics like on Rock N Roll. You listen to it and think, ‘My God, this guy is gonna die.’ That was the last record I made in the last days of the drugs.”

In 2010 he spun up a full version of his Pax Americana/PaxAm imprint– one that he had used to release a few tour-only 7″es with the intention of releasing some of his vast archives of recordings as well as new. The hardcore fans knew about a lot of the unreleased archives due to rampant bootlegging of sessions (likely a result of the mismanagement by Lost Highway– a few of these made it out the door as promotional CD’s).  In Spring of 2010, Adams put out a vinyl/digital release of a “metal concept album” called Orion. Recorded in 2006 during the recordings of Easy Tiger the punky metal album would likely never have seen the light of day under the curation of Lost Highway.

Riding a wave of unexpected productivity, Adams announced shortly after the delivery of the orders of Orion what he had planned next. A 2 LP compilation of Cardinals-backed leftovers songs from the Easy Tiger sessions, titled III/IV (meaning the 3rd and 4th LP’s following Cold Roses which was labeled “I” and “II”) which eventually came out in December of 2010 after Adams inked a distribution deal with Orchard for the album (likely surrendering to the pains of independent distribution and mailing releases) and Blackhole— an album he started working on in 2005 and revisited in 2010 with some additional overdubs, mixing and mastering with Jamie Candiloro (who was part of Orion as well).

Thanks to the fans over at the Ryan Adams Boards of tobeyoung.org (who are carrying the sole flag of RA Fandom since the demise of the ryanadamsarchives boards) we have some concise bits of the history through Ryan’s own posts to social media. Poster mustbeburt provided most of the 2010 posts about Blackhole as well as a picture of the test pressing, which I augmented with other sources from the boards:

03.2010
“Congrats Jamie C… After 4 years of production work we finished the infmous never-ending BLACKHOLE Record tonight! What a trip! Big love to the Candyman… WOOP WOOP ( or woot wut or something one of those kind of football noises here!!!”

03.15.2010
From a post to Facebook: “Why Does This Come Out LeftHanded? Gtr Stuffz at BananaChicken… So FUN!!!”

06.11.10

RA Blackhole Test Pressing

“oh yeah, p.s. the “Blackhole” LP ( recorded over Christmas in 2005 ) is also back from the mastering plant. I f’n love this thing. It took 4 years to make it and to me it is basically Love is Hell Part 3… lots of shimmery guitar love on this. Exciting times!!!

06.19.10
No. You never heard BLACKHOLE. only two songs ( the demo versions or rough versions of DiscoQueen and Tomorrowland ) were every out there.

09.04.10
total bullshit. Blackhole will go to preorder after III/IV.
don’t listen to these sites with this shit or the one’s that have “tour dates” or made up guarantees- they are full of shit.
The people I work with don’t have websites they have telephones and they do business the old fashioned way, over lunch and in great detail.
hang in there, all 6 of you, who are still excited.

WAIT– what? We already heard two songs? Indeed it seems as though Ryan slipped us a couple of Blackhole tracks during his aborted attempt at doing a “Digital Singles” series in 2009. The third and final of these was “Tomorrowland” and “Disco Queen.

Also, that video from 3/15/2010 shows Ryan adding guitars to what is very likely “S.O.S.” which he released as a song on the “fake” Sad Dracula album Fasterpiece as part of the avalanche of music (24 albums) he released to his website in 2006/2007.

S.O.S. by Ryan Adams (Sad Dracula) on Grooveshark

Ultimately, we never saw the preorder for Blackhole, and it seemed that the issues surrounding getting III/IV out the door for the pre-orders took a toll on the future of the PaxAm releases. Ryan announced on the ryanadamsarchives boards that he was through trying to release albums on his own. I have the full quote in this article. He did release a few amazing Record Store Day 7″es and also the massive Live After Deaf compendium box set of his 2011 solo acoustic tour independently. Ashes & Fire was a PaxAm release jointly with Capitol which established his free agent method of releases– similar to how Prince is handling his catalog. Adams’s new self-titled album is PaxAm jointly with Blue Note Records.

The recording and releases of Ashes & Fire in 2011, touring, an aborted followup to Ashes & Fire and his new album would continue to hold up the release Blackhole. Ryan isn’t really much for dwelling on the past. He records so much new material he would likely never need to go back and revisit old material, unless he needed some closure.

But nobody forgot about Blackhole. During interviews about Ashes & Fire, he was asked about Blackhole.

From Record Collector magazine (and clipped by alt.country.org):

RC: “And what about those people who’ve been waiting for Blackhole?”

RA: “It’s all done. It’s all mastered,” Adams says. It’s also been five years in the making, with Ryan going in to the studio at the end of 2010 to finish it. “When I started demoing for the new record, my intention was to go finish Blackhole — which I did.” he says. “There were guitars missing and a few vocals that were just too fucked up at the time to put out.” Adams and his drummer even found sound effects and song fragments that they’d entirely forgotten about. Eventually, several extra songs were added to the mix, and the album was finished with the help of old notes and photographs taken when the project began. “All of a sudden, we knew that that was the real record. Like that was exactly what we had intended,” he enthuses, adding, “It’s historical how it was put together.” As “easy and as beautiful and as natural” as recording Ashes & Fire was, Adams notes: “Rescuing Blackhole was like rescuing my past. It’s like Love is Hell’s sister. In every way. In the most profound way. My most beautiful electric guitar: Johnny Marr-inspired guitar. It’s just all in there.” 

Here is what he said to Onion’s AVClub around the same time about it:

AVC: Speaking of putting out more records, you’ve talked about finally completing Blackhole, which dates back to the mid-’00s. What’s its status?

RA: The art is done. The album is mastered. It’s so ready to go. But the thing is, I just did this Ashes & Fire record, and there’s also a live box-set thing. It sounds so brutal and old-school and great. People were good enough to not bootleg the shows. We asked them not to. I’ve always let my fans tape all the shows. I was like, “Just let me do it right.” So we did this really cool set list, and did that, so that’s sort of waiting. And Blackhole is badass, man. I fucking love it. It’s like Love Is Hell, but more up. It has that same feeling and texture, the way Love Is Hell sounds. It’s definitely [Love Is Hell producer] John Porter 101, although the record was not recorded with John Porter, it was tracked with [producer] Tom Schick, and then finished with [producer and Cardinals member] Jamie Candiloro, and also this guy that works with The Strokes sometimes, Gus [Oberg]. It’s sort of like everybody that I’ve ever worked with has a little bit of engineering on it.

We mixed it for four months just to get it exactly right, like adding guitars, subtracting guitars. I even went to New York with [bandmate] Johnny T, who I originally recorded it with, and we opened up all the sessions. We put all the reels back on; we found pieces of songs that were only kind of done that were so good, we were fucking finishing things, but really respectfully. By the time it was done, we got it down to 11 songs, leaving a bunch of shit off. But I was like, “I want it to be exactly what it should be.” A few of my friends have it, and it reduced a few of them to tears. It is so much of [that] time. And it’s cool, too, ’cause it’s sort of like the last party. [Laughs.] So it has beauty, but it has a darkness. But what’s really cool about it is, it has the darkness and it has the wisdom, but to me, it has the feeling of the one fucking thing all of my records were missing, the one part of the story, which is a record that’s sort of just reveling in youth, and reveling in life, as it is. It’s not a “Go to the beach” record, but it’s like, “Let’s go out at night and let’s fuckin’ be werewolves of chaos in New York.” It had that fuckin’ reckless-abandon feeling, and I love it for that.

I love that there’s this great picture of that time. It feels really good, and it’s super, super-connected to all the post-punk records I loved growing up. It’s probably the best electric guitar-playing I’ve ever done, the best bass-playing I’ve ever done, and the most consistently psychedelic rock record that it could be. But it’s not hippie stuff at all. It’s a record that you could listen to if you were listening to The Lemonheads or listening to My Bloody Valentine, or Hüsker Dü. It really is an alternative record.

Another quote from Paste Magazine

“…the long-gestating, finally completed Blackhole, on which he played all the instruments other than drums, just like 2003’s Rock N Roll,  although he describes it as Love Is Hell’s “rock sibling.” Adams started and recorded most of it in 2006—“It was the last sessions I did before I knocked all that crap out—drinkin’, partyin’ and all that stuff. So it was the tail end of that crazy winter, so it has that energy, which is really beautiful. I haven’t decided when or how I’m gonna put it out, but there are songs on that people in my life really love—my wife digs it, my best friend thinks it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done—and my other best friend is the only other person on the record: Johnny T played drums on it. Whatever it was that wasn’t done, we just finished it off, and it’s one of the coolest things ever, man.”

And, with those interviews in 2011, that was the last we heard about Blackhole until the recent interviews in support of Ryan Adams.

Adams had been performing a new song titled “Catherine” which was not on the tracklisting for the new album. The first time we got to hear it was for the Newport Folk Festival appearance in July. While the song seemed to fit with the rest of the songs on the new album, its appearance with no initial explanation sparked some debate on the boards about what it was. One leading theory was that it was possibly a song that would be included in the recently announced PaxAm 7-inch Singles series, or possibly it was a bonus track for an import version of the album.

Then Adams spilled the beans on “Catharine” on last weeks’ World Cafe performance— it is a track from Blackhole, and then performed another song “The Door” from it! Here is the exerpt of the interview with David Dye:

DD: “Is there anything that hasn’t seen the light of day that you want to get out?”

RA: “Yeah, I think I’m finally ready, maybe, to release the Blackhole record that’s been on the shelf for a long time. It’s been hiding, and there’s been actually two versions of it which is pretty interesting. But it’s actually gotten to the point where I think I’ve gotta let it out there. I’ve got to let it out in its weird context. I’m going to try to do it in a way where the finished thing of what I’ve always dreamed it was is released and maybe I’ll make some kind of pocket of the really raw and crazy from before because it was the last record I made when I was on drugs and I say that in like a sweet way. I took drugs to stay in the studio longer and to play music I didn’t take drugs to wander down the street or sit at a bar or whatever. I always just wanted to play and there was something about that you know? And that record particularly– it’s the finale of that time that met with tracks that happened just after. So, there is a real tempest there.

When you put together your setlist– do ever do any of that stuff live?

OK, this is cool because people don’t know this yet, but they keep asking about this song. This song “Catherine” that we have been playing live is from Blackhole.

Is there one you can do for us?

Yeah, we’re gonna do one that’s never played live before called “The Door.”

In Summary:

Blackhole is mastered, has cover art and will be 11 tracks. Of the 11 tracks, we have five songs confirmed: “Tomorrowland,” “Disco Queen,” “S.O.S.,” “Catherine” and “The Door.”

As far as the liklihood that Blackhole will come out soon, it’s anybody’s guess and as we see with all of the quotes I’ve included here, he’s been talking about the album for many years. At least the basic work has been done to prepare the album for release so it is ready to go to manufacturing. In an interview with Bob Mehr for Buzzfeed.com, Adams says that he might consider releasing it for the next Record Store Day (probably the April 2015 one and not the Black Friday one considering he’d still be touring through the end of November for the new album). In an upcoming interview with Chris Familton of fasterlouder.com, he says, ““I think I might release that, though I haven’t completely decided. It’s my own label, my own studio and my own rules so yeah, I’m open to releasing stuff that hasn’t come out but right now it’s about stuff I’ve been making in the last few years because there’s so much of it.”

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