Reckoning with Ryan Adams’ new album

It’s complicated
I just don’t love you anymore…

— Ryan Adams, “Am I Safe” (2014)

One thing that writing “Losering” did for me was to underscore the futility of music journalism and criticism, especially album reviews. The book forced me to reconsider release-date-vintage things I’d thought and written about everything from the Ryan Adams/Whiskeytown discography in the harsh light of the present, a process that induced a cringe or two. While I think I was more or less right about most of the records, there were definitely some I had significantly underrated at first (especially Love Is Hell) or thought too much of (Rock N’ Roll). And as I was finishing up the book in the fall of 2011, Ashes and Fire came out and I overrated that one, too. I should not have been surprised; just because I was writing it in a book rather than a newspaper review, that didn’t make my snap judgment any more long-lasting.

Something else “Losering” emphasized was the futility of fandom: the fact that if you follow anybody long enough, they will surely disappoint you. Whether I should feel that way or not, I am disappointed in Ryan. I wish I didn’t feel that way because I hate being That Guy — the dock worker in Liverpool who liked The Beatles during their Cavern Club days but thought they sold out when they went on “Ed Sullivan.” Or the guy in Greenwich Village who thought Bob Dylan should have stuck with old folk songs. Or the dude in Asbury Park who thought Bruce Springsteen’s calling was to stay a bar-band journeyman. So maybe giving up what he had in order to get to where he is now was the right call for Ryan; perhaps his upcoming self-titled album will one day be mentioned in the same breath as Rubber Soul or Blonde on Blonde or Darkness on the Edge of Town.

But…I don’t think so.

RyanAdamsCoverSo anyway, yes, Ryan Adams (Pax Am/Blue Note Records) will be released next week; in the meantime, you can listen to a stream of it here, here, here, or here. A few reviews are starting to appear, because right around or even before release date is when outlets tend to be interested in running them. Never mind that the pre-release period, when a given artist does a bunch of interviews (usually saying some variation on the same thing in each one), tends to be the least-interesting part of a record’s life cycle. It’s just how the game goes.

At least Ryan has been his usual swaggering, quotable self in his latest round of interviews, covering all his by-now-obligatory recurrent bullet points. Drug use, check; disavowing outlandish behavior he has supposedly outgrown, check; references to his prolific nature by way of another high-profile addition to his stash of unreleased music, check; tantalizing suggestion that he might actually release one of his “lost” golden oldies, check; and through it all, Ryan’s insistence that he always just goes with the flow — check.

As for the record itself, whatever I think about it at this point, chances are good I’ll think something completely different a year from now. But you know me, I can never shut the hell up even when I know I should. So here are a few initial impressions based on several days of listening to Ryan Adams:

(1) This might be damning with faint praise, but at least Ryan Adams is better than I expected it to be based on the lead single “Gimme Something Good” — a song that I still find pretty ho-hum after a decent amount of listens over the past few months.

(2) Tom Petty’s shadow hangs heavily over this album, which is not an inherently bad thing because Tom Petty is really good. Multiple songs (most notably “Trouble” and “Stay With Me”) have wailing guitar leads echoing Petty’s 1980 signature hit “Refugee,” and the overall vibe and dynamics are very similar to Damn the Torpedoes-era Tom Petty. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Ryan Adams is a more engaging Petty album than Petty’s own current effort Hypnotic Eye. (ADDENDUM, 12/11/14: Stereogum agrees.)

(3) On the other hand, it pains me to say this, but other songs on Ryan Adams seem reminiscent of (God help me) Bryan Adams, especially “Feels Like Fire.” Now if you’re going to evoke Bryan Adams, “Run To You” would definitely be the right song for it. But still…Bryan Adams? Et tu, Ryan?

Elsewhere, “My Wrecking Ball” sounds like Whiskeytown’s “Avenues” as rewritten by Springsteen, while “I Just Might” sounds like a Springsteen demo. And speaking of popular rock-star dudes of a certain age evoked by this album, let’s see what Ryan’s old Whiskeytown bandmate Phil Wandscher thinks:


(4) It took me a while, but ultimately I decided that my main objection to Ashes and Fire was that it was a bit too subdued and monochromatic. While I wouldn’t call Ryan Adams jumpy or anything, it does vary tempos and textures enough to make me think I might someday prefer this one. But ask me a year or so from now.

(5) It’s tempting to read autobiography into anyone’s songs, but especially with someone like Ryan whose songs have been an open book for so much of his career. Maybe he’s turned over a new leaf, in which he’s no longer writing about himself. But if these songs are anything like an accurate reflection of his current mental state, he’s in a mighty grim place nowadays — and spending a lot of time in his own head. The opening couplet on the album, from “Gimme Something Good,” pretty much sets the tone: I can’t talk/My mind is so blank/So I’m going for a walk/I’ve got nothing left to say…

“I Just Might” is no cheerier: Everything’s broken/In my mind/Ain’t no place to run/Ain’t no place to hide. And “Shadows” likens the space between the singer’s ears to prison with a “field of razor wire” that “comes a little closer.” By the end, he’s “Tired of Giving Up” and decides to “Let Go.” And so he does.

(ADDENDUM (1/24/2015): In light of the two paragraphs above, this is not surprising.)

(6) A self-titled album, especially by someone who has been around a while, implies a statement-of-purpose declaration of sorts: This is who I am. And what bothers me about Ryan Adams is just how generic it is. It’s not bad — in fact, it’s perfectly pleasant while it’s playing — but it also sounds like something that any number of other people could have made. I’d rather hear another record that Ryan and only Ryan could have made. Given his thoughts on his own catalog, I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Maybe ever.

And that, dear reader, is why I’m disappointed (though not quite as harshly so as this guy).

ADDENDUM (8/28/2015): I don’t agree with this, but it’s a good take.

EthanReckoningMeantime, I actually do have a current favorite Ryan record, sort of, an album that unobtrusively slipped into the marketplace last month. That would be The Reckoning (Three Crows Music) by Ethan Johns, a mate of Ryan’s who has produced a significant chunk of his post-Whiskeytown solo career (Heartbreaker, Gold and 29). In a role reversal, Ryan is listed as producer of The Reckoning and also credited with drums, bass, electric guitar, synthesis and “Trash can.”

There’s not much trashy about this, though. Understated and emotional, The Reckoning is a song cycle about a young immigrant on the frontier in pre-Civil War America. But never mind the storyline. This brooding little record has a lovely atmosphere that seems fragile but is powerful enough to linger and draw you in. Imagine Heartbreaker if Nick Drake had made it; take a listen here and see what you think.

I’ll keep listening to both these records, of course, and I’ll continue paying attention to Ryan for as long as he’s making music (yeah, even when he’s just goofing off). But down the road, I’m fairly certain that The Reckoning will be the record I’m still interested in hearing.

ADDENDUM (9/9/14): Ethan Johns interview.

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23 thoughts on “Reckoning with Ryan Adams’ new album

  1. I hear what you are saying here, but I think you might be a little too harsh on the guy. Being an amazing songwriter is difficult to maintain for anyone. (See Tom Petty’s latest you referenced.) And maybe Adams can’t keep his early fire, but he still writes songs that stop you in your tracks. “My Wrecking Ball” did that to me, especially the version he did for the Tonight Show: The latest record may not be a classic (I haven’t heard it yet) but at least he keeps writing and releasing material.

    In regards to your comments on his talking points for interviews, I think that’s just part of keeping up a rock star mystique. He’s well-versed at it and knows what he’s doing.

    When we look back way in the future there will still be enough quality material from his collective output to make him one of the great songwriters.

  2. dmenconi

    You may well be right; I admit I have certain expectations of Ryan, having seen/heard him at what I consider to be his peak, and I can’t help but feel disappointed when he falls short. And maybe this one will sound better down the road than it does now — like I said, the futility of trying to review stuff before it’s even out.

    That said, my initial take on this one is that it just ain’t moving me, and that makes me sad. I know, you can only fall in love the first time once, so I understand that it’s too much to ask and not fair of me to expect. But there’s still a part of me that longs to feel the way he made me feel the first time I heard Strangers Almanac, or those astonishing fall 1999 solo shows. I know it’s a pipedream, but it’s one that dies hard.

    • David,its funny you mention the fall 1999 solo shows. I have a bootleg of Ryan and Gillian Welch doing a duo performance in Nashville in ’99. They do a few Whiskeytown numbers…but the REAL magic is in their takes on Gillian’s stuff and the covers. They do amazing versions of Time (The Revelator) and Gram Parson’s Return of the Grievous Angel. After listen to the WT catalog and the solo stuff…its easy to see why a lot of the other material would be a let down, of sorts. I agree with you on Love Is Hell, though…that’s a GREAT record! -Elliott

  3. Have you noticed the similarities between the opening riff of “Gimme Something Good” and Kathleen Edwards’s “Mint”?

  4. dmenconi

    Meanwhile, the exchange below happened on Facebook. He quickly deleted his comment; so what the heck, I decided to preserve it here…

    Him: Are you really listening to the music? Or, are you caught up in a superficial journalistic connection to Ryan Adams? So, that begs the question: Are you a musician that can empathize where an artist is traveling? Or, a journalist with hopes, of where a progressing artist won’t take you, where he once did…with your, and only your expectations?

    Me: Gee, I dunno. How about you – are you a DRA sycophant, a pretentious twit or both? I thought I made it clear that that was simply my idiosyncratic & very personal first take on this record; one I might even choose to disavow in the future for reasons elucidated in the opening paragraphs. As to my perspective, I’ve got mine and you’ve got yours. I’m not saying mine is any more valid than yours. But that doesn’t make yours inherently more valid than mine, either.

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  7. David,

    Better than the new Petty record? Uh, no, I couldn’t disagree more.

    I’ve had a really hard time on multiple attempts making it through to the end of the new Adams disc. It’s not that it’s bad, or particularly good for that matter, it’s that it’s boring. You said generic. I think that’s about right. As frustrating as I find most of his catalog after Heartbreaker, I’ll take uneven over boring. I can cherry pick uneven.

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