Saturday, March 26, 2016

Ryan Adams - Ryan Adams

Just my luck that I became a big Ryan Adams fan pretty much exactly when he stopped being super prolific. The year his catalog really clicked for me was 2009, and by then, his early 00s run of masterpieces, his surge of releases with the Cardinals, and his boatload of b-sides and unreleased (but thoroughly bootlegged) albums had mostly come to an end. Sure, since I’ve been paying attention, we’ve gotten III/IV, an extensive collection of songs recorded around the time of 2007’s Easy Tiger, and Ashes & Fire, a super comfortable, sort of sleepy, and thoroughly safe bunch of folk songs. But what makes Adams special—his unapologetic need to write, record, and release as much material as his fans can stomach (and in many cases, much more)—has been somewhat dampened over the past few years.

There’s an upside to all of this, though, and it’s that, for the first time in a long time, the release of a new Ryan Adams album genuinely feels like an event. Adams knows it too. He knows that he’s been sitting on material that the younger version of himself would have surely fired off to his fans—a Glyn Johns acoustic record, for one—and he knows that this new record is the first one in ages that won’t get immediately disparaged because the guy who wrote it is too prolific. For those reasons, he’s decided to name his latest record (I don’t know which number this one officially counts as) Ryan Adams. A self-titled effort; a new beginning. And a fucking great place for this world-class songwriter to start on the next leg of his epic journey.

Ryan Adams is at once the most cohesive and consistent album that Adams has released in at least nine years. It doesn’t lag in the midsection like Ashes & Fire did, and it doesn’t feel like it was cobbled together from a long, fractious recording session like I always felt Easy Tiger did. Instead, it offers a sharp and steely portrait of where Adams is as he approaches 40. And from the sound of this album, he’s not in the best place. Ryan Adams is a stark, gloomy, and frustrated set of songs, starting with the earworm lead single, “Gimme Something Good,” and spitballing wildly and viciously from there.

Part of the reason Adams hasn’t released anything in years is that he hasn’t been satisfied with the music he’s been writing. Rumor has it that he sunk something like 100 grand into that Glyn Johns record, and I know he was writing and recording with Butch Walker back in the summer of 2012. Undoubtedly, both of those sessions birthed plenty of material, so you can’t really say that Ryan Adams is suffering from writer's block. It is evident, however, from “Something Good,” that he’s reached a crossroads where he’s no longer sure that the music he’s writing is anything that anyone wants to hear. “I can’t talk, got nothing to say/It’s like there’s no tomorrow, barely yesterday,” he sings, before repeatedly begging some unknown entity to just give him “something good,” already. It’s a compelling start that shows Adams writing from a more personal place than I think we’ve heard in at least five years.

Adams' own struggles with writing and relevancy are not the only demons plaguing him on this new record. When he debuted the gorgeous acoustic number “My Wrecking Ball” at the 2014 Newport Folk Festival, Adams called it a “protest song” objecting to the death of his grandmother. “Driving through the streets tonight, it’s hot I got the windows down/I wish I could call you, I wish you were still around,” Adams intones in a ghostly murmur at both the start and end of the track. It’s not the first time on the record that sounds like something he might have sung on the downbeat and sepulchral Love is Hell, an album full of haunted piano keys and switchblade guitar solos that was originally split into a pair of masterful 2003 EPs. It’s not the last, either. Ryan Adams consistently conjures up callbacks to the music that Adams was making 10 or more years ago, and for most fans, those abundant callbacks will be more than welcome.

One example is “Kim,” another dead-ringer for the Love is Hell style, which boasts reverb-laced guitars that sound like headlamps reflected on a rain-washed street. Another is the road-trip-ready folk-pop of “Let Go,” which sounds like it could be a fully-fleshed out version of a few of the songs from Adams’ brilliant 2001 lost record, The Suicide Handbook. And a third example is “Shadows,” which is the electric guitar answer to “Shadowlands.” A piano-led standout from Love is Hell, “Shadowlands” relied on a repetitious keyboard loop to convey complete and utter desolation. Similarly, the verse portions of “Shadows” use a limited guitar loop to create an air of paranoia and confusion. You can bet that the similarities between the two songs, including their titles and moods, aren't accidental.

Ryan Adams isn’t the only artist whose past work is getting referenced on this album, though. Adams has always been a die-hard music fan and a consummate record collector. My favorite album of his, 2001’s Gold, cycled through at least a dozen different influences, from Van Morrison to The Rolling Stones. Here, Adams is mining different wells of classic rock gold. At least half the songs have some flavor of Damn the Torpedoes-era Tom Petty: Benmont Tench, a founding member of the Heartbreakers, even turns up on “Gimme Something Good,” providing a swirling organ intro that takes us straight back to 1979 and that first swell of “Refugee.” The siren-like guitar riff on the chorus of “Stay With Me” evokes Petty, too, but that song also has flavors of Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac; and American Songwriter beat me to the punch in saying that the foreboding guitar intro to “I Just Might” makes it sound like Adams has been spinning his copy of Nebraska pretty frequently as of late.

The best songs on Ryan Adams need no comparisons, though, because they refine Adams’ sound to a new level of polish and vibrancy without sacrificing what made his old work so special. Take “Trouble,” where Adams captures every ounce of skittering intensity that defines this record in a single sub-four-minute song. “Put my hand through the mirror, let the water run/Seven years bad luck is better than none,” he sings as the song careens into it’s indelible hook: it's one of the record's definitive moments. “Feels Like Fire” sports another bulletproof chorus—arguably Adams’ catchiest, at least since the Gold days—set to a stately and metronomical drumbeat. And the achingly beautiful “Tired of Giving Up” is the kind of breezy slow dance ballad that just feels timeless from the first time you push play, from Adams’ relaxed and self-assured vocal delivery to the chiming bell refrain that lifts the song toward the heavens in the wake of yet another impeccable chorus.

Fans of Adams’ ultra-lyrical Heartbreaker stage may not find much to appreciate about Ryan Adams. The same could be said for those who hold Adams’ messy, indulgent, and spontaneous work with the Cardinals as the songwriter’s gold standard. That’s because Ryan Adams isn’t an alt-country album, and it’s not a rock album in the same way that Adams has made rock albums in the past. Instead, as those three songs highlighted in the paragraph above prove, it’s the closest Adams has ever come to making a pop record. The songs are simplistic, structured around taut verses and hummable choruses, and the production, done here by Adams himself, is as lush and polished as it was on Gold. There's not a more streamlined album anywhere in the Ryan Adams catalog, and for a songwriter who is anything but streamlined, that may seem a bit off.

But while Ryan Adams doesn’t take as many chances as some of the other records that Adams has made in the past decade, it’s also as cohesive and consistent an album as any he has ever made. Fans will debate whether there are any all-time Adams greats in the tracklist, any songs that stand up to the likes of “Come Pick Me Up” or “Oh My Sweet Carolina” or “New York, New York” as the best material he’s ever committed to tape. Other fans will wonder whether Adams sat on a “better” record while opting to release this one. But regardless of those factors, Ryan Adams simply plays like the record that Adams needed to release right now. He sounds more vital and impassioned than he has in years, and the songs feel like the new beginning that a self-titled record should be—even if the lyrical content paints Adams distinctly like a guy cruising down a dead-end street. My favorite Ryan Adams record since Love is Hell, and his most complete since Gold, Ryan Adams is a thrilling reminder of why this guy is one of the greatest songwriters of his time.

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