Ryan Adams had a very busy 2005. He released three Lost Highway albums, one of which a double-disc, and tailed it with a major tour to support the first, “Cold Roses.”
Since the balloons have fallen and the glasses of champagne have been emptied, I have to admit I’ve entered into some sort of Ryan Adams hangover — this, coming from a regular Adams user. He’s developed quite the tolerance for lovelorn topics and extended instrumental solos but, in the meantime, I got drank under the table somewhere in the middle of “29,” which came out in December.
Fans everywhere sat at the bar with Adams serving ’em up, but progressively more folks fell to the floor, slurring they hadn’t eaten dinner yet and that they had “too much too soon.” “Cold Roses” has sold 135,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen Soundscan. His follow-up, “Jacksonville City Nights” sold 80,000. “29” sold 50,000. So I guess I’m not alone.
“September,” an excellent 20-minute music documentary by Danny Clinch, features Ryan Adams doing typical Ryan Adams things like scratching his big fluffy head, chain smoking, drinking, walking through the East Village and indulging in General Earnestness. It’s a snapshot of a guy who can’t put the guitar down, who churns out music because he can.
I can’t say the dude needs a hobby because, really, I want him to make music. Yes, yes, yes, he needs an editor sometimes (to make his sharpest knifes sharper) but what he also needs is a business plan. (Remember when he put out “Love is Hell” as two separate EPs first and then combined them for a full length? Yeah, I cussed too.) I’m not one for suppressing releases until it’s financially ideal, but perhaps suppressing until its artistically ideal could be a better option.
First, my largest whine about “Cold Roses” was that it could’ve been a perfectly great single disc. Drop “Now That You’re Gone” (“Harder Now That It’s Over”, anyone?), “Mockingbird” “Blossom,” and “Beautiful Sorta” (which is beyond irritating to me for some unfounded reason) and you’ve got 14 cohesive tracks with blues, rusty ballads and bossy, elegantly solo-strewn upbeat numbers. “Let it Ride,” the leading single, was glossy and easy-going, a brilliant pop/country/rock fire-starter with a memorable hook. “Magnolia Mountain” has a sweet intro. “Friends” is so sentimental and lo-fi, my preciousness soft spot just got softer.
“Jacksonville City Nights” is summed up best with “The End,” a song with a traditional country arrangement and untouched production. He yelps, yodels, sings about drinking and then murders you with a climaxing chorus, “Oh Jacksonville/ how you burden my soul/how you hold all my dreams captive/Jacksonville/how you play with my mind/how my heart goes back suffocating on the pines.” It’s Adams’ way of combining nostalgia, metaphor, fiction and hyperbole into a song, causing you to believe that you yourself could say the same of a place called Jacksonville.
In its entirety, “JCN” evokes the same sentiment, that his past could be your past. It’s his most embraceably country record since Whiskeytown, though self-consciously so. It features Adams sitting behind the piano more than ever, too, which has its pluses and minuses. “Don’t Fail Me Now,” “Games” and “Peaceful Valley” are remarkably touching in their coarseness while others, like “Silver Bullet,” fall flat.
“29” chronicles all Adams’ years in his 20’s, more of a pastoral memoir than a rollicking role-call of forgotten nights. It feels like it’s supposed to be essential fan fodder, an invitation for his audience to get up to speed on the psyche and mentality of this chronic songwriter. “The Sadness” sounds like a stand-off in the corral while “Elizabeth You were Born to Play that Part” is a trip to Snoozeville. “Blue Skies Blue” is a pretty, slow-burning saddy. “Carolina Rain,” though a well-written song, has Adams trying to hard, forcing a vocal performance he’s not fit to take to stage. Though only nine songs, “29” contains too many disparities to bear.
Historically, the man has been described as difficult to work with, earning questionable “does not play well with others” marks but, to his and the Cardinals’ credit, some of Adams’ best and most ambitious writing last year was made in a band setting (though the actual membership of said band has been in constant flux.) Solo, he reveals himself as more introspective and willing to dive into new territory, despite what his self-destructive personae indicates. But with more people, quality players like steel guitarist Jon Graboff and bassist Catherine Hopper, he can keep his feet firmly anchored to the ground and sound like he’s having a whole lot more fun doing it.
When I saw Adams play the Music Downtown Series here in New York, he was in a fine mood. He took his time taking the stage, invited Minnie Driver — drink-in-hand — to harmonize on “Games,” performed “Jacksonville Skyline” (one of the very few Whiskeytown songs he ever agrees to play) and did he ever talk and talk and talk. He sounded like a man with too many ideas to harness.
His well-documented appreciation of the Grateful Dead has grown and it’s with great support that he’s able to pay homage to a group sound without coming off as a total wank. His return to more roots music makes us all forget songs like “Nuclear” and “Love is Hell” ever happened to humanity. With each release, we, as fans, find brand new gems. But it’s with a hungover heart that I plead to Ryan Adams: take some time off this year. I like having a buzz much more than a blackout.