Friday, February 8, 2008

29 - Ryan Adams


Ryan Adams
Lost Highway Records

SCQ Rating: 75%

A slew of albums (eight of which legitimate records, the rest orphaned/subject of trailed-off sentences) and twice as many personas, Ryan Adams has accumulated a legacy, unstable as it may be, comparable in both talent and profligacy to the aging songwriter generation he muses after. Throw in a few public meltdowns, several tour cancellations due to poor health, a commercial breakthrough, its inevitable backlash, an orchestra-pit collapse and a ton of reported substance abuse, and you have five years in a career which has given birth to enough material to warrant such comparisons to any Young or Westerberg. So you can lend the once-deemed "New Dylan" a seat if he sounds tired on 29, his third record of the year, as this is where one suspects that art is imitating life.

One glance at the blotted ink-stains and typewriter errors found throughout the liner notes reminds me of a common Ryan Adams gauntlet my mind occasionally throws down: is Ryan Adams a genius giving into lazy song-writing and jackassery? Or are all these rough edges and head-scratching, 'is-he-serious' lyrics part of his genius? When he sings "And I worry about you / Why, because you want me to," is it an honest assessment of a complicated relationship, or more of the aforementioned flippancy? More to the point, are the blotted ink-stains and typewriter errors committed purposefully or is Mr. Adams just rushing for the finish line? With most artists, I think the consensus would lie in the former. However with Ryan Adams, it's a rare mystique in his otherwise cartoon-worthy over-exposure; the artistic merit beneath a defensive jokester.

Regardless of which side you're on, neither will justify 'The Sadness'; a Mexican-Standoff complete with galloping guitars stolen from the Three Amigos soundtrack and worse, Adams screaming "Arrrrrriiiiba" to imaginary horses that will lead him away from, that's right, the Sadness. That this song shares a running time with some of Adam's most affecting work is a further shame, as much of 29's REAL sadness is tender and evocative in its instrumental and lyrical detail. 'Strawberry Wine' is a pastoral gem of minimalist acoustics; a simple serenade of guitar and banjo to complement one of Adams' many richly disturbing stories on display. "Starlite Diner' and the rather Morrissey-inspired title of "Elizabeth, You Were Born to Play That Part' further imbed an understanding of Adams' talent by stripping everything but his voice and a small band of instruments (aided by Ethan John's pristine production).

In fact, the regrettable moments on this record are the songs where he shows no regret; when he abandons his thematic passage of claustrophobic loneliness in lieu of, well, jackassery ('29'). And for an album consisting of only nine songs, the few missteps admittedly leave a larger smear on the record as a cohesive whole. No denying it, 29 is certainly the comedown record of his catalogue and, possibly, the wintry close of his formidable years. Here’s to the next five.

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