Believe it or not, I really don’t go out of my way to be contrary about Ryan Adams’ late-period work. With every record he’s released since the Whiskeytown days, I’ve put in a fair amount of listens, trying to find something to like. And while they all have some merit (or at least a handful of decent songs), overall most of them come up short for me. That goes for the current eponymous album Ryan Adams, which has drawn mostly positive reviews but still strikes me as somewhere between meh and okay. There’s a song or two on it that I’ll find myself humming along with, but for the most part my preliminary conclusion on it from just over a month ago still stands:
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.
If I thought that Ryan could no longer do this kind of work anymore — if he had really moved on from that phase of his life, personally as well as artistically, to the point that it just wasn’t in him — I believe I could reconcile that and move on myself. But then he does something like his latest seven-inch EP, “Jacksonville”-“I Keep Running”-“Walkedypants,” and it just keeps me hangin’ on.
It’s not flawless, of course. “Walkedypants” is one of Ryan’s infamous in-studio goofs, two-and-a-half minutes you’ll never need to hear more than once. The other two songs, however, could be the missing link between Whiskeytown’s dark masterpiece Strangers Almanac and Ryan’s ambitious ornate-pop effort Pneumonia (with a little solo-era Cold Roses thrown in). More than a decade and a half later, he’s gone from sounding older than his years to sounding like he’s finally caught up with himself.
In glorious shades of pop-twang, Ryan sketches out yet another bittersweet lament for the old North Carolina hometown he used to curse. But you can’t tell me he doesn’t love it now, just from the way his voice quavers on the “Oh, Jacksonville” chorus. It’s heart-stoppingly lovely. Then, just to split the arrow in the bullseye, he follows that with another attempt to explain in song why he’s still running away from it after all this time.
I’m faster than the pain
That’s running through my veins
And you can’t break my heart if you don’t know my name
I keep running…
But that’s the thing. Run from something long enough and eventually you’ll find yourself running back to it (“Run To You,” indeed). And close to 20 years since Whiskeytown’s heyday, Ryan can still resonate on that wavelength when he gets a mind to. Had he done a whole album like this, he’d deserve the current round of accolades and a whole lot more. Instead, he puts out a major-label album that sounds like second-rate Tom Petty/Bryan Adams mash-ups while relegating his best work in years — songs that sound like they actually mean something! — to a limited-edition seven-inch release.
You have gone missing from my life…
Ryan Adams is better than Ryan Adams and “Jacksonville” proves it. I really wish I could have picked someone less frustrating as object of neurotic fandom. But for the seven-and-a-half minutes “Jacksonville” and “I Keep Running” are playing, it feels just like old times.
That’ll have to do.