Ryan Adams released his first album in three years last month, and the music media and the internet went a bit nuts about it. This is somewhat understandable. Adams has been considered one of America’s best contemporary songwriters since the release of Heartbreaker in 2000, and he was so prolific early in his career that he battled with his record company because they wouldn’t release all his material.
Of course, he also struggled with drugs and alcohol throughout that time, and developed a relationship with the music media that was what you’d call—if you want to be charitable—combative. (For the record, I don’t blame him for this: Most music writers are hipster trolls.) But for the last few years the production dried up, as Adams struggled with an inner ear condition called Ménière’s disease.
So there was palpable excitement when he released his self-titled album—the first since 2011’s excellent Ashes & Fire—and backed it up with a tour that included headling shows at the Newport Folk Festival and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, the kinds of gigs he refused to play for years. He also did the most media outreach he’s done since … maybe ever? In one of these interviews, with Buzzfeed, he said he doesn’t like country music and basically disavowed Whiskeytown. This honestly kinda pissed me off, because I love Whiskeytown, and Heartbreaker is No. 2 on my Desert Island Albums list. It turns out that sometimes it’s a mistake to listen to what your favorite artists have to say about their own work.
But I was still excited for the new album. And then I listened to it and my first reaction was kinda … meh. It was fine, but it sounded pretty ’80s—definitely not my preferred decade for music—and my favorite song on it, My Wrecking Ball, was exactly the kind of song that would have fit on Stranger’s Almanac or Heartbreaker.
I know that wrecking ball metaphor is a little tired, but I still really dig this tune (which Adams told the crowd at Newport he wrote for his recently deceased grandmother), and I definitely had an impulse to say, “Do more of that, goddammit.” Also, “Get a haircut, you fucking hippie.”
Still, I figured I shouldn’t dismiss the album out of hand, so I’ve given it a bunch of listens since then, and I have to admit that it’s grown on me. The sound is ’80s, but it’s pleasingly so—it’s been compared by pretty much everyone to late-’70s/early-’80s Tom Petty records, and I think that’s pretty good benchmark. In particular, the lead guitar on Trouble sounds like it could have been played by Mike Campbell, and Stay With Me reminds me of the Petty-Stevie Nicks collaboration Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around. After Wrecking Ball, my favorite tune on the record is probably Shadows, a haunting tune of love dissolving that features some pretty clinical tremolo guitar work. (Is it possible to be clinical with a trem bar?) I also very much like Feels Like Fire; listen to the chorus and tell me it doesn’t remind you of another ’80s icon—Chris Isaak.
On the whole, I’d give the album a “B.” It’s not on the level of Heartbreaker, Cold Roses, or Love Is Hell, and I slightly prefer the most recent album, Ashes & Fire, but Ryan Adams is a worthy addition to the catalog.
One more note: I probably would have gone back to SF for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass last weekend anyway (y’all know I love that shit), but Adams being the headliner Friday clinched that decision. I’m happy to report he put on a great show, with a mix of old hits—Oh My Sweet Carolina, Come Pick Me Up, New York, New York—and tracks from the new album. Also, if you’ve never seen him live, Adams might be the funniest motherfucker in all of pop music, as he showed by ad-libbing a song about a guy that had some balloons in the middle of the crowd—an insane sea of people—and actually turning it into a pretty rockin’ jam.
Yeah, Ryan’s still got the goods. And, as always, Hardly Strictly rules.