On his new, self-titled, album the enfant terrible of the Americana scene grows up and embraces his classic rock roots, with no second-guessing and no looking back over his shoulder. The results are… well, read on…
BY FRED MILLS
Ryan Adams is a 5-out-of-5-stars album. I’m not afraid to be that blatant about my admiration for it; it’s been a constant fixture on my stereo since I got a digital advance of it several weeks ago. And yeah, I do realize that some of you out there are gonna have a problem with that. So much about Ryan Adams gets up people’s noses—the public temper tantrums, presumably a thing of youth and therefore a thing of the past (maybe…) but destined to footnote his bio for the rest of his life; the uber-prolific nature of his output, and all the inevitable attendant quality control issues that go with the territory (do we really need to hear every punk fart and black metal belch he impulsively lays down on tape?); the—horror of horrors—celebrity marriage, which meant that all those Mandy-watchers also placed Adams under their petty little lenses while the paparazzi aimed some pretty large lenses in his direction.
The sleeve art to his new self-titled album isn’t doing him any favors, either; not that it’s bad or too arty or anything, but in the larger context of a musician who has always appeared to be very image-conscious, the deliberately mussed/tousled/messy close-up photo is definitely gonna keep the haters’ gums flappin’. (One acquaintance remarked to me that he thought it looked an awful lot like—speaking of horrors and tantrums—Bryan Adams’ ’84 mega-seller Reckless, but I’m not so sure. Still, it’s fun to fantasize that our Mr. Adams is having an inside-the-inside joke moment here.)
But. The music. Everyone should know at this point that a lot of our artists have feet of clay; outsized antics and complicated psyches frequently accompany artistic genius. It’s up to us to figure out how to separate the music from the myth. And, my god, this is the best thing Adams has ever done, rich in sonic depth and lyric nuance, boasting an expansive widescreen ambiance while still pulling the listener in close, intimate. It just might even edge out Whiskeytown’s 1997 masterpiece Strangers Almanac, which for a lot of Adams fans has always been the impossibly high bar he set early in his career, one which he’s been trying to hit with his solo albums ever since.
Me, I’m neither a Ry acolyte nor a hater. Full disclosure: I currently live in Raleigh where there are apparently more Adams acolytes and haters per capita than any other city on the planet. Adams famously said from a local stage about 10 years ago that he would never again perform in Raleigh, where his high crimes ‘n’ misdemeanors included burning plenty of bridges with fellow musicians and the indie scene intelligentsia, and he’s kept his promise so far. Meanwhile, I had the fortune (or misfortune, take your pick) not to be in Raleigh or even North Carolina during Whiskeytown’s rise and Adams’ subsequent solo success, so as the saying goes, I ain’t got no dogs in this fight. Reputation or not, he’s just another collection of CDs on my record shelf. So I was having a discussion with my friend and fellow journo David Menconi, who is the rock critic for Raleigh daily The News & Observer and author of the 2012 Adams biography Losering. Needless to say, he knows a thing or two about the dude (as I pointed out in this review and interview about the book), and whenever I have an Adams-related question I call him up and pick his brain. I confessed to Menconi that while Strangers Almanac is one of my all-time favorite albums (and I said as much in this review and interview about the album), none of the Adams solo records ever quite did it for me in the same way, not even 2000’s stellar Heartbreaker and its almost-stellar followup, 2001’s Gold. Menconi, for his part, has followed Adams pretty closely—I’m sure the Adams camp would say “too close for comfort,” considering the rumored cockblocking Adams attempted when Menconi was scheduling interviews with his friends and associates for the book—and has very informed and detailed opinions about all the records. He’s clearly let down by Ryan Adams, as his review at his Losering blog makes explicit:
“Something… Losering emphasized was the futility of fandom: the fact that if you follow anybody long enough, they will surely disappoint you. Whether I should feel that way or not, I am disappointed in Ryan. I wish I didn’t feel that way. Maybe giving up what he had in order to get to where he is now was the right call for Ryan; perhaps his self-titled album will one day be mentioned in the same breath as Rubber Soul or Blonde on Blonde or Darkness on the Edge of Town. But I don’t think so…. What bothers me about Ryan Adams is just how generic it is. It’s not bad — in fact, it’s perfectly pleasant while it’s playing — but it also sounds like something that any number of other people could have made. I’d rather hear another record that Ryan and only Ryan could have made. Given his thoughts on his own catalog, I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Maybe ever.”
That’s a perfectly fair, honest, assessment, and the review goes deep into the music and lyrics, certainly deeper than I, as an occasional Adams fan, am willing to go. Menconi’s neither an acolyte nor a hater himself—I can personally vouch for his ability to walk the tight wire of objectivity while retaining his deep love for rock ‘n’ roll—but a lot of locals no doubt assume he falls in the latter camp. So the reason for my digression here is to make a point: people’s reactions to albums are inevitably colored by their prior experiences and their own inherent biases and preferences. That’s not a crime. For me, I came to Ryan Adams with absolutely no expectations whatsoever; I occupy a position of middle ground when it comes to Adams. Well, I’ll admit that when I first spied the front sleeve artwork, I snickered and say to myself, “Pretentiousness alert!”
But back to the music. Like any good album, it scans well on the initial listen and is powered by the classic “make the first three tracks grab the listener” strategy via initial single “Gimme Something Good” (one of several songs on the record that conjure Tom Petty circa his Damn the Torpedoes classic—speaking of whom, that’s Heartbreaker Benmont Tench on organ), lost-lover ode “Kim” (with its Fleetwood Mac/”Go Your Own Way” rhythmic pulse and wandering-through-the-streets-alone vibe) and masterful, dynamics-rich anthem “Trouble” (also cut from the Petty template, its blazing guitars and urgent vocal can’t fail to draw the listener in—“We might as well be dead and be gone if we don’t belong here,” sings Adams, to all us misfits of the world). Adams no doubt realized long ago that if you hook fans right off the bat you stand a pretty good chance of holding their attention for the rest of the duration, something more indie rock bands should take to heart.
More important, though, like a truly great album, Ryan Adams doesn’t lose steam. In fact, it gets better with each spin. Song after song connects: from the spartan, atmospheric folk of “My Wrecking Ball,” which any fan of Jason Isbell would be proud to claim as a favorite, and the brooding, nocturnal “Shadows,” which in its moody grandeur is destined to wind up in on movie soundtracks; to the deceptively celebratory jangler that is “Feels Like Fire” (the contrasting lyrics portray another lost-at-sea Adams persona, as he sings “You will always be the hardest thing I ever will let go”) and the album’s other decisive masterpiece, a thrumming, ‘80s-esque rocker called “I Just Might” which contains a line so deliciously Springsteenian it also bears quoting: “Maybe every promise anybody makes/ Is destined for the rocks the longer it takes.” Point of fact, every tune serves the moment, like a series of self-contained filmic miniatures whose character sketches, though brief, are utterly memorable, with those sketches’ accompanying sonics just as resonant.
Regarding those characters, Adams’ tendency to rely almost exclusively on 1st– and 2nd-person pronouns as he paints his vignettes means that from the outside looking in it’s tempting to assume straightforward autobiographical narrative on his part, which is a risk all songwriters take. Given the public circumstances of his private life, it’s hard not to read some of his lyrics literally, perhaps through the lens of heartbreak or even break-up. A line like “I watched you walk away to be with him” (from “Kim”) seems pretty cut-and-dry, for example, while “Just so you know/ You will always be the hardest thing/ I ever will let go” more than simply hints that there’s been some kind type of parting of the ways. Adams, though, like many of his heroes and inspirations, has learned how to leaven his tales with just the right amount of generality in order to sidestep obsessive scrutiny on the part of the listener. (He’s not Taylor Swift, in other words.) You can listen to these songs and relate, in other words.That ability to infuse a universal quality into one’s songs doesn’t come as part of the writer’s DNA; it’s called honing one’s craft. And on Ryan Adams, the songwriter demonstrates that he’s done a lot of listening, a lot of learning, and a lot of honing.
Ryan Adams is also an unabashedly classic rock record, one that at times verges on homage but never slips into parody or cliché. If you are thinking “classic rock” as pejorative, guess again; another artist has staked out similar turf this year, War On Drugs to near-universal acclaim, with the Springsteen/Seger/Knopfler-infused Lost In A Dream album. On Ryan Adams there are the aforementioned Petty, Springsteen and Fleetwood flourishes, and speaking of the Mac, another song here, “Tired of Giving Up,” bears a remarkable resemblance to Lindsey Buckingham’s compositions of yore, most notably 1981’s solo hit “Trouble.” One can also detect more than a few guitar passages conjuring sonic memories of vintage Dire Straits and Eagles. And I could swear that Adams’ little foray into falsetto towards the end of “Shadows” is a nod to Roy Orbison (or Chris Isaac, perhaps). Adams, if anything, is hewing quite close to his roots here—or at very least, he’s discovering his latent roots. A lot of people probably forget that prior to forming Whiskeytown in 1994 he’d been playing straight-up punk rock, so the transition to alt-country raised more than a few eyebrows. This new album similarly marks a decisive, if not wholly unexpected, change in direction, for aside from “My Wrecking Ball” there’s virtually none of the stuff that’s kept him generally classified as an Americana artist.
Personally speaking, I think it’s a good direction to head in. That’s right, I said 5 out of 5 stars. If we were on a 10-star scale it’d be a 10. You got a problem with that?
Ryan Adams is released this week on CD and vinyl via PaxAmericana Recording Company/Blue Note.