If an artist is fortunate and talented enough, there will come a moment in their career when a significant portion of their intended audience is listening intently for the music they are about to release. All ears are on them. At such a moment, the finest artists rise to the occasion with a memorable song or album and solidify their reputation for years to come.
Ryan Adams achieved just such a well-timed triumph with his 2001 album Gold. At the time of the record’s release, Adams had built a steady following and achieved great critical acclaim both with his band Whiskeytown and with his first solo album, 2000’s Heartbreaker. Gold arrived with lofty expectations and hype from the music press and proceeded to exceed all of that fanfare with its captivating collection of disheveled rockers and disconsolate ballads.
First single “New York, New York” gained immediate attention in the wake of 9/11 (Gold was released just two weeks after the terrorist attacks), but over the years a slow song quietly tucked about halfway through the album has proven to have the longest shelf life of any of the disc’s 16 tracks. “When The Stars Go Blue” not only soars in Adams original rendition, but it also received well-known readings from country superstar Tim McGraw and the Irish connection of Bono and The Corrs, among others. Heck, it was even sung on American Idol.
Adams was asked by The AV Club in 2007 about the song and he spoke about how its durability never ceases to amaze him. “It’s definitely true for that song, because I’m always so shocked by what it’s up to,” he said. “Another year will pass and I’ll hear like, ‘Oh, so-and-so is doing ‘When The Stars Go Blue.’ It’s like the song that wouldn’t go away.”
Perhaps “When The Stars Go Blue” attracts so many cover artists because of how insightfully and effortlessly it dissects a common songwriting topic: When someone you love settles for somebody else. It’s also one of Adams’ most accessible set of lyrics, even as those lyrics contain enough subtle twists to render the song unassumingly profound.
In the verses, Adams creates a character sketch of a girl who’s just a little bit out of place as she tries to settle into a new life. The juxtaposition of images suggests as much; “Dancin’ in your wooden shoes/Dancin’ in your wedding gown,” Adams sings. He hints that her dancing isn’t as free and easy as it used to be: “Dancin’ little marionette/Are you happy now?”
The final verse is particularly potent. In the first two lines, he suggests that she’s masking her pain behind a pantomime of happiness: “Laughing with your pretty mouth/Laughing with your broken eyes.” He follows that up with “Laughing with your lover’s tongue/In a lullaby,” a telling contrast between the adult passion she practices and the youthful innocence still hidden inside her.
When the refrains arrive, the narrator is willing to put aside any judgments about her new life and join her, suffering though he might be in her wake. “Where do you go when you’re lonely/I’ll follow you/When the stars go blue.” On that last word, Adams climbs into a soulful falsetto in conjunction with backing singer Julianna Raye. The brilliance of “When The Stars Go Blue” peaks at that moment, brilliance that continues to entrance performers and audiences alike via its soft-spoken spell.