Career In Brief: Ryan Adams

INTRODUCTION

Ryan Adams (not to be confused with the 80’s Canadian soft pop rocker of a similiar name) came to prominence as the frontman for alt-country visionaries Whiskeytown in the late 90’s. While they were critical darlings, Whiskeytown experienced a number of problems during their short time together, and by the start of the new millenium Adams was out on his own trying to make his way as a solo artist. He debuted in 2000 with the stripped down vagabond rock of Heartbreaker, a record that garnered a lot of critical praise and is considered a classic by many (though not me). After Heartbreaker, Adams struggled for some time with label issues and an identity crisis. Gold and Demolition each contain a handful of good songs, but they are unfocused and ultimately disappointing. With Rock N Roll, Adams appeared to have gone over the edge altogether, producing a rock record that was more about name-checking than craft or songwriting.

Love Is Hell, though still planted in Adams’ early solo work, marked a turning point for Adams. He found a new voice in quieter, introspective songwriting, and the result is the first truly compelling record of his solo career. But it was 2005 that saw Adams finally emerge and produce the work that everyone suspected he was capable of. Cold Roses is still Adams’ masterwork, a sprawling alt-country epic that finds him backed for the first time by The Cardinals. 2005 also saw the release of Jacksonville City Nights, a concept album that features Adams as a barroom troubadour nostalgic for his youth, and 29, a more intimate and personal collection that recalls Love Is Hell.

From 2007 thru 2009, Adams settled into a prolific groove with The Cardinals, establishing a sound all his own with Easy Tiger and Cardinology. But in 2009, he split from The Cardinals and took time away from music (though he’s been releasing archived material in the interim). Word is he’ll be back in late 2011 with his first post-Cardinals release, Ashes & Fire. Here’s hoping that ditching The Cardinals wasn’t akin to Springsteen ditching the E Street Band. Otherwise, it might be a long decade for RAdams.

NOTE: Adams is a ludicrously productive songwriter. There are at least six albums of unreleased material from his early days that haven’t seen any sort of official release: The Suicide Handbook, 48 Hours, Pinkhearts, Darkbreaker, Black Hole, and Destroyer. Additionally, in 2010 he released the sci-fi metal concept album Orion in tribute to Voivod, and a full cover of The Strokes’ Is This It? exists as well. And chances are there’s a slew of other unreleased material. I won’t be covering the unreleased material, but you can find Destroyer here. And maybe I’ll review Orion at some point, when it’s made available through the streaming services.

ALBUMS

Heartbreaker (2000) – [B]: Profoundly overrated debut. Decent in its own right, but not the masterpiece many think it is. ["To Be Young"] (my review)

Gold (2001) – [C]: Positioned for the airwaves, falls flat with a few memorable on the front end. ["La Cienega Just Smiled"] (my review)

Demolition (2002) – [B+]: Adams doesn’t try, makes best record yet. Typical. ["Hallelujah"] (my review)

Rock N Roll (2003) – [C]: Essentially annoying. ["Burning Photographs"] (my review)

Love Is Hell (2004) – [A-]: Intimate, dream-like, brilliant. ["English Girls Approximately"] (my review)

**Cold Roses (2005) – [A]: Finally makes an alt-country masterpiece. Achieves his potential. ["Easy Plateau"] (my review)

Jacksonville City Nights (2005) – [B+]: Less alt, more country. Adams briefly indulges bar room country in his own unique way. ["A Kiss Before I Go"] (my review)

29 (2005) – [C+]: Adams leaves his roaring twenties behind. Mostly quiet and murmurous, mostly a snoozer. ["29"] (my review)

Easy Tiger (2007) – [A-]: An enjoyable synthesis of his earlier workstreams. Contains some of his best songs. ["Pearls On A String"] (my review)

Cardinology (2008) – [C]: Adams confuses musical heroics with inspired songwriting and performance. ["Born Into A Light"] (my review)

III/IV (2010) – [B-]: Quantity over quality, but essokay. ["Kill the Lights"] (my review)

OTHER

Moroccan Role EP (2004) – [3/3]: Hey, alt country??? What the???? "Ah Life" is a good change of pace. Sort of a grungey Dylan thing going on. That’s how I’d classify the rest of the record.  This is actually really good. ["Ah Life"]

Follow the Lights EP (2005) – [7/7]: Gotta dig the Alice in Chains cover. Also, I like this version of "This Is It." Overall good, nothing remarkable, but I do like some of the directions he takes here. ["Follow the Lights"]

He’s got a bunch more back tracks that I don’t have access to – maybe one of these days.

Quick Review (LP): Jacksonville City Nights by Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams
Jacksonville City Nights
Lost Highway; 2005

My Rating: B+ (76/100)

Best Tracks: "A Kiss Before I Go", "Dear John", "The Hardest Part", "Silver Bullets", "Peaceful Valley"

A little more lovely, a lot more twangy.

NOTES

  • For a guy who got pigeon-holed as an alt-country twang-rocker early on in his solo career, this is his twangiest effort by far.
  • Plenty of solid tracks here. Benefits a lot from the pedal steel + violin arrangements.
  • Tracks like "A Kiss Before I Go" and "My Heart Is Broken" fit the cosmic american music moniker well. Gram would be proud.
  • Lovely themes abound. "Peaceful Valley" is gorgeous.
  • There’s a few memorable tracks here, but only a few. The rest of the album sort of passes by in a pretty stupor.
  • It’s not his best, but it is one his better records. There’s life right through it, even when it threatens to get a little drab, as Adams as wont to do. I’m guessing The Cardinals were to thank for that?
  • AMG:  "[I]t’s still hard not to shake the suspicion that Ryan Adams is primarily a pastiche artist, since it’s not only easy to spot influences throughout the album, but because the atmosphere of the record makes more of an impression than the individual songs." Spot on, but I don’t give him a hard time about the atmosphere. It’s one of my favorite things about Adams’ work, something he seems to get better than most alt-country artists, and something that separates him from the pack. Remember Nashville Skyline? “Girl from the North Country”, “Lay Lady Lay”? It’s a nostalgic wash, this.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Consistency (5/5)
Songs (4/5)