Ryan Adams has held the mantle of the uber alt troubadour ever since 2001, when his album Gold and it’s single New York, New York hit big. He’d been around for years before that, both in the alt-country band Whiskeytown and as a solo artist. But New York, New York put him on a new level, at which he’s stayed ever since. Then, last year, something happened. I heard Ryan Adams on mainstream, commercial Australian radio for the first time ever. In fact, I heard him a lot without ever knowing it was him. Not because I thought it wasn’t up to Adams’ standard, but because I just didn’t expect to hear Ryan Adams on mainstream, commercial Australian radio. So when I realised it was Adams, I realised I needed to stop dragging my heals, and listen to his latest, the self titled Ryan Adams.
Gimme Something Good is the mainstream, commercial Australian radio infiltrator that made me finally catch up with this record. And I can see why it broke through. It’s Ryan Adams, but it’s Ryan Adams at his most accessible, while still sticking to his guns. Guitar based, sing songwriter stuff with its heart on its sleave that gets away with it, because you know he means every sentimental word of it.
If this was the 80s, songs like Kim and Trouble would have been released by John Mellencamp, they would have been hits, and they would be unfairly laughed at now. But with the advantage of the (earned) street cred of Ryan Adams, they’re the kind of songs that get a little more respect and a longer shelf life these days.
In fact, it’s not just the song writing that reminds me of 70s and 80s guitar men like Mellencamp and Steve Earle, it’s the production as well. Am I Safe and My Wrecking Ball both have the sound of that era. That sound of a certain studio polish, that never lets things get too clean to cover up the raw wood underneath the lacquer. Maybe it’s a conscious effort in the studio, maybe it’s a sign of the strength of the song writing, but no matter how clean the sound gets, you can hear the sweat needed to make it in the first place.
Until Stay With Me and Shadows. Take everything I said above about the production sound and the songs at its core, then flip it. These sound like nothing but studio tricks and cheats to cover up middle of the road guitar ballads. The kind I assume a song writer for hire shits out at the end of the day after writing countless other middle of the road guitar ballads for countless other artists. There’s none of the heart that you hear in the other Ryan Adams tracks, or most Ryan Adams tracks from any album for that matter.
But the good news is, Feels Like Fire gets straight back into exactly what worked so well for the first few songs on Ryan Adams. The driving, relentless, but simple drums keep this track moving from soup to nuts. Adams never needs to go bigger or over compensate. The percussion here takes something simple and good, and makes it something simple and great. I Just Might attempts something similar, but until the last 45 second or so, it just meanders. Which is a shame, because in those last 45 seconds, when Adams lets lose a little vocally, you hear how good this song could have been.
I usually hate the idea of a band or artist going with a self titled album. For a profession that relies (or should rely) so heavily on creativity and originality, the self title just seems lazy and uninspired. But I don’t mind it so much on Ryan Adams. It works on a couple of levels. For one, Ryan Adams is a very Ryan Adams record. For another, it’s a great way to make sure the impact of his first top 10 album in Australia hits that little bit harder and his name is remembered that little bit longer.