(Lost Highway; 2005)
By David Greenwald | 8 December 2005
There are two ways to see Ryan Adam’s 29. On paper, it looks awful: nine songs averaging about five and a half minutes apiece (only “Starlite Diner” is less than four), no Cardinals, more piano, and plenty of sad bastard lyrics, all leading up to the most subdued, depressive album of Adams’ career. Then again, that description fails to take into account Ethan Johns’ remarkable production, the charismatic singing, the strength and cohesion of the lyrics, and Adam’s abilities as a subtle solo performer. 29 is like neither this year’s Cold Roses nor Jacksonville City Nights, and while it references his previous work, the album is a wholly new artistic statement from the prolific musician.
The typical Adams song is about love and loss, and for that, one has no further to look than anything from his last two albums. All the same, it’s not as if he lacks the ability to delve deeper – “In My Time Of Need,” from 2000’s Heartbreaker, is the kind of poignant reminiscing expected from an aging Johnny Cash or Neil Young, not a man in his mid-20s. Likewise, tracks like “Sylvia Plath” hinted at the possibilities of more nuanced musicianship. On 29, Adams finally embraces his lyrical potential with graceful, fragile accompaniment.
The album opens with “29,” which, after absorbing the rest of the album, seems to be a tossed-off prelude or introduction. In a chronological sense the track should go last (Adams was 29 when he recorded the album, which he has claimed is about the years of his twenties), but placing it first creates an interesting commentary on the rest of his work. “29” isn’t so different from his Cold Roses material, all chugging guitars and Grateful Dead aping, and Adams uses it to shrug off the diversion of his rock ‘n’ rolling to set the scene for the rest of the album. John’s production seems to echo this statement, raising Adams voice to the top of the mix and panning most of the instruments to the sides to differentiate the remainder of the songs.
While most Adams albums sound hastily conceived and committed to tape (they are), 29 appears to have logged a few months in the womb before birth. The lyrics have no needless profanity or lazy choruses. Rather, they’re full of connections and image-laden metaphors that make the album feel like a tightly cohesive work. Every song is a piece of the puzzle; “29,” the ostensible throwaway track, establishes the dangerous appeal of the reckless “night time songs,” and their outcome: “Cry me a river ‘til the morning comes.” Water will come back to haunt Adams through the rest of the album’s first half, leading to death or despair—often both.
“Strawberry Wine,” the album’s longest tune at eight minutes, goes down as smoothly as the object of its title, a languid, mid-paced waltz that bobs along with ukulele accompaniment. The lyrics wrap around the phrase “strawberry wine” and use the central image to tell several stories, all dark and painful behind the musical curtain. With only a verse/chorus structure and no solo breaks, it’s akin to the lengthy epics of Bob Dylan. With the production focusing attention on his voice, Adams sings with a dry, knowing concern that evokes the perspective of Claire, an old woman in the song who drinks strawberry wine “till it comes out her nose.”
“Night Birds” and “Blue Sky Blues” return to the water imagery, with the “night birds” singing the hollow night-time songs of “29.” “We were supposed to rise above, but we sink / into the ocean,” Adams sings, and the second time he does, Johns adds an electric guitar’s crunch and delay to Adams’ vocals, like a cliff tumbling into the darkness, and screams rising from the depths. The similarly piano-based “Blue Sky Blues” is sung with more resolution and without the sophisticated cymbal work of “Night Birds,” portraying a man doing his best to triumph over a loved one’s despondence.
If the first half is about life, moving from recklessness to concern to despair to disbelieving hope, the second side of 29 is about death. “Carolina Rain,” the album’s halfway point, is a narration of implied adultery and hushed-up murders, ending with the narrator’s death: “I was down at the banquet hall / when two guys came up, pretty angry and drunk / and I’m still here at the banquet hall, at the banquet hall / where the gun went off in the Carolina rain.” Water is once again paired with death, evoked by the striking image of a body lying in a pool of blood and raindrops. The gorgeous, almost ethereal “Starlite Diner” is Adams’ final, purgatorial goodbye. “Fare thee well, my old friends,” he sings in the chorus, waiting at the Starlite Diner for someone to usher him into the afterlife. “It’s a blowout / on a birthday cake / and I’m a birthday candle / floating in the lake,” his flame extinguished and submerged in the waters of death. “Where are you, it’s getting late,” he sings at midnight – just before the start of the new day – and his companion arrives just in time.
“The Sadness” continues with a narrator being called “beyond,” fighting against it with dramatic flamenco rhythms and a similarly operatic vocal performance. The second truly up-tempo song on the album, it would be a sore thumb if it didn’t provide an alternate side to the graceful acceptance of “Starlite Diner.” “The Sadness” is determined to show that it is very much alive, though the lyrics contradict it (“the change is happening and I’m almost gone,” and a reference to “oceans of ink”).
“Elizabeth, You Were Born To Play That Part” and “Voices” take on a different, even more harrowing perspective. “Elizabeth” is about a friend’s miscarriage, but even without that contextual knowledge, the words speak volumes: “Every night it seems like there’s no tomorrow / not that you will ever know.” A beautiful instrumental coda ends the song, leaving the album to conclude with the comparatively harsh “Voices.” The quiet track adds a ghostly sheen of reverb to the vocals, which beg Elijah (the biblical prophet, who once raised a child from the dead) not to come. The bitter ghost is calling to a newly deceased child, telling it not to return to the living: “Step away from the light!” Adams sings in sharp falsetto.
Taken all together, 29 is a staggering piece. Throughout, there are clues and intricacies that could explored forever – the line in “29” about Adams’ friends having babies and considering him already dead takes on new meaning after “Voices,” and is Rose from “Carolina Rain” really Claire, the “old Irish rose” of “Strawberry Wine?” While the appeal of Cold Roses lies in its emblematic status—a two-disc distillation of quintessential Adams songwriting and composition—this is a level beyond. While Adams recorded this album as the first of his three albums this year, releasing it last makes it his defining statement. This is the death of Ryan Adams, the over-prolific and misguided, and at the ripe old age of 29, the birth of Ryan Adams, the craftsman, the artist.