The Critic: Ryan Adams & The Meaning Of Ryan Adams

ryan-adams-new-albumBy Spencer. Ryan Adams has always been two artists: the hard-mouthed alt-country troubadour and the 80s rock nostalgia junkie. So what should we make of the fact that his latest album is simply named Ryan Adams? Is it a rejection of the duality I just described? Does he think this batch of songs represents the real Ryan Adams? Or after thirteen albums as a solo artist, has he just stopped giving a shit about naming these things? Whatever the answer, Ryan Adams the songwriter has clearly touched on something, because Ryan Adams the album is the first truly great rock record he’s put together.

As an expression of Adams’s rock-and-roll alter ego, Ryan Adams is the perfect bookend to his last major release, 2011’s Ashes & Fire—perhaps the definitive example of his alt-country side. That album was a rebirth of sorts. The songs were tight and focused—a skill we all thought Adams might have lost during the prolific period that preceded it, back when he was churning out three albums a year with little concern for how much of his output was actually any good. He seemed to be searching for himself in those days and the result was musical schizophrenia: the diverse double album, Cold Roses; the barroom bluegrass of Jacksonville City Nights; the piano-man balladry of 29 (all released in 2005). Each of these albums was quite excellent in its own way, but taken together, they gave the impression of a man wearing masks.

ryan-adams-at-lettermanDespite making his name as a country artist with the band Whiskeytown, Adams seems to get the itch every few years to let loose his inner teenage rebel and crank the amp up to 11: first with 2003’s Rock N Roll, then again on 2008’s Cardinology (not to mention two of his more bizarre self-indulgences: the vinyl-only hair metal album, Orion, and this summer’s 1984, a series of one-minute punk songs). Yet try as he might, his rock songs have never achieved the authenticity of his country stylings. It’s not for lack of enthusiasm—if his choice of covers is any indication, he clearly loves a wide range of rock and metal music from Oasis to Iron Maiden to Vampire Weekend. But as effective as he can be at emulating these sounds, they still sounded like emulations.

Ryan Adams finally breaks that cycle. You can still hear the influences at play here—Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty instantly come to mind—but this time, Adams goes beyond mere imitation and puts an urgency into his work that can’t be faked. “Gimme Something Good,” the lead single and album opener, is a slow, head-bobbing slice of guitar with a glossy chorus worthy of the Heartbreakers or Rick Springfield (which I mean as a good thing).

Ryan Adams“Gimme Something Good”

Speaking of Tom Petty, “Trouble” has a sound and a desperation reminiscent of “Refugee,” and “Stay With Me” and “Feels Like Fire” tread in similar territory. But catchy as they are, these songs are only bridges between the album’s best moments. Adams does ballads better than anyone and the acoustic “My Wrecking Ball” stands alongside his best—so sparse and simple as it builds into an echo of its central line, “Come and knock me down tonight.” “Shadows” isn’t quite like anything in Adams’s catalog (or anyone else’s for that matter), marching along on staccato snare hits through a cloud of spooky reverb appropriate to the name.

Then there’s the album’s most cutting song, “I Just Might.” It begins with just a fast-driving guitar line, quiet but threatening like Springsteen’s “State Trooper” from Nebraska. The melody takes abrupt turns, spiraling through chord changes as Adams sings, “Keep your head down / Keep your eyes shut tight / Don’t wanna lose control / Baby, I just might.” The song itself feels like it might lose control, but it never does, building in beauty and noise until the bottom drops out and leaves you right back where it started—with that same quiet guitar line, unresolved and still lurking like the doubts that fueled this.

Ryan Adams“I Just Might”

These songs all seem to come from a darker place, and the two closers, “Tired Of Giving Up” and “Let Go,” only step partway back into the light. If Ryan Adams is intended to be the definitive Adams experience, the tone as a whole is far from optimistic. Unlike Ashes & Fire, a comparatively sunny effort that seemed to find Adams in a moment of rare contentment and ease, this album is full of storm clouds. It never quite rains, but you can smell it in the air.

ryan adamsEven so, Ryan Adams is still a lot of fun, in part because of the energy that drives it. That’s the great thing about a good old-fashioned rock song: it never lets you wallow. It picks you up and carries you forward. And make no mistake, this music is another step forward for a songwriter who by all rights should have flamed out long ago. Despite the name, I doubt that this album is either a settling point or a resolution for Ryan Adams. He’s far too complicated a person to stay in one place for very long. In the never-ending search for himself, he has a tendency to keep trying on new hats, if only to see what fits.

It’s that desire to be all things at once that defines his music. And it’s why there will never be a definitive Ryan Adams album. Just a lot of great ones.

[Coming up next week: a review of the Ryan Adams album release party from the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC]

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