heory: A Ryan Adams that doesn’t exist is the most popular artist in indie rock. I mean, it would certainly appear so. For someone so seemingly universally despised by the music crit cognoscenti, Ryan Adams sure does get a lot of press. And when you consider he only sells about 100,000 records a pop, that’s not exactly a mandate for coverage. So to what can we attribute this?
His third record of 2005, 29 finds the acoustic-guitar-wielding, piano-plunking Adams (of old?) we all know and love/hate reunited with producer Ethan Johns and sans the Cardinals, offering calm melancholy meditations on his usual topics—women and/or mortality. Recorded shortly after recuperating from a wrist fracture that could have ended his career and before last year's other two releases (Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Lights), the sound of 29 is stripped to the absolute bone, consisting mostly just lush piano and fragile voice. For example, on the gorgeous “Starlite Diner,” Adams sings “It's midnight, at the Starlite Diner / You said meet me at a quarter to 12” with his voice drifting up the scale. The eight-minute “Strawberry Wine” isn’t a second too long, with Adams in Neil Young-esque storytelling mode accompanied by nothing but an acoustic guitar and ukulele. “Don't you listen to the voices in the past / They lied, run away from the light” he sings on the album’s final track “Voices”—to himself, to us, to himself.
But it’s on “Elizabeth, You Were Born to Play That Part,” with its simple, plaintive, dirge-like melody slowly building to a swirl of strings, guitar, and piano arpeggios with gently brushed drumming, when Adams sings, “Wherever you are / I hope you're happy now.” If you’re scoring at home, this is the ultimate revelation for the lovesick songwriter: Hard to say, hard to believe, and even harder to sing without sounding like a complete toolshed.
So point of fact: Ryan Adams is really fucking good, and everyone, including (famously) Adams himself, knows this. The aforementioned music criticism cognoscenti secretly adores Adams because he holds the promise of a truly great album, but with each one that fails to deliver, we take it personally.
Reviews of 29 could have been written months before even a single chord leaked to your favorite file-sharing service. It’s in the secret handbook:
Using any number or hyphenated combination of All Music Guide’s free-of-charge suggested adjectives, every Ryan Adams review must include:
- two (2) obligatory references to how prolific he isAfter seven solo albums its plain to see that much of the criticism he receives really has absolutely nothing to do with the actual songs—what they’re about, how well they are crafted—but whether he’s reached his so-called “potential”; whether the album is what it could and should be given his enormous talent. And so, 29 will probably do little to change this, even if those hopelessly praying for a proper sequel (copy) to Heartbreaker can find much to like about it. This is probably the least fun of all his albums, but also among his most rewarding. That should be enough.
- one (1) fleeting mention of how frustrating this is
- one (1) not-very-helpful suggestion on how to negotiate this problem (i.e., get this guy an editor!)
- one (1) not so subtle reference to how he’s probably on drugs that are bad for him (why else would his hair be so mussy?)
Reviewed by: Barry Schwartz
Reviewed on: 2006-02-03