Ryan Adams
Love is Hell Pt. 1
Lost Highway
2003
C+



over three years have passed since Ryan Adams put out Heartbreaker, an album you could almost swallow whole without gnawing on the gristle and bone of much of the material. The follow-up, Gold, was a retreat, often pockmarked and grotesque. It showed glimpses of a nascent talent beneath a surfeit of discardable tracks. Many of the best songs were hidden on the bonus disc, gamely titled “Side 4” and only available with earlier copies, an almost willful attempt to disillusion those who had long believed him capable of a landmark album. Gold’s faster-paced songs had a vacant way of flowing through you and leaving no residual traces of their passing.

The jumbled collection of miscellany that came after, Demolition, was schizophrenic at best, blending folky laments with underwhelming college rock in a rather forgettable manner. I owned it for a day. When his new EP, Love is Hell Pt. 1, works, and it does so only sporadically, Adams creates songs of suffocating closeness and density, reminding one of a cabin boarded up for winter with the heat left on. His voice is warm and vibrant again; it doesn’t strain too hard against its own husky vulnerability, and when the music follows suit, the songs are immeasurably serene.

“Afraid not Scared” opens with quietly stroked guitar and Adams’s reverberating voice. A slow, mournful air permeates the song, as Adams repeats “I’m getting really cold and I’m looking at you/You’re not moving.” It’s a haunting winter’s elegy.

The title track mars itself from the start. Chiming Tom Petty electric guitars (read: ugh!) blend with rolling acoustics and faceless piano to mount into a noxious chorus. Take your average John Cougar Mellencamp cover band and force them to write their own material and this might spew forth. When she first heard it, my wife broke into an alley cat rendition of “Nuclear!” She was right; it’s that nauseating.

The next two tracks return to the drowsy atmospherics Adams performs so well. “Wonderwall,” with its empty-room guitar and synth so dim it’s like hushed white noise, finds Adams’s voice stark and starlit, and the song’s simplistic bloom is intoxicating.

“The Shadowlands” is borne solely on a repeating piano line and Adams’s screened vocals until its mid-point, when it crescendos on wafting strings and a sleepy electric guitar solo. It could have been plucked from Pneumonia, and as it rises from the near silence of “Wonderwall,” it becomes clear that the gorgeous deadened nerve ending feel of these two songs may be reason enough to own this EP for those who have grown sick of the Adams saga or those who are blessedly ignorant of such trifles.

Damn. I almost made it through this entire review without the requisite allusions to the Lost Highway bedlam or the hipster polarization behind Adams and his work. This internet-bred lore is all around; almost any review you read will mention it. I don’t want to sound pedantic but overstatement so often leads to a loss of moxie. Some ideas must be allowed to drift off on their own weightlessness. As soon as Adams comes around to this view, he may still put forth an endless-night gem, perhaps even his own bar-roughened Tonight’s the Night. Unfortunately, in the interim this anticipation leads many of us to grate our teeth against his excess.
Reviewed by: Derek Miller
Reviewed on: 2003-11-18
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