Ryan Adams and the Cardinals
(Lost Highway; 2005)
By Peter Hepburn | 4 May 2005
Well, well, look who’s back. After it turned out that rock ’n roll didn’t actually need saving (at least not by Ryan Adams), the logical step for the former Whiskeytown frontman was a return to the roots. In Ryan’s case “the roots” mean three of the best alt-country albums of the last ten years, Whiskeytown’s Stranger’s Almanac and Pneumonia, and then his solo debut, the nearly flawless Heartbreaker. There were a couple records after that (_Gold_ had its moments but as excessive and, like both Love is Hell EPs, uneven; Demolition was a shoddy as you’d expect a demo comp would be), but it’s best to just disregard them for now.
Cold Roses really feels like the record that Ryan should have been making after Heartbreaker: an ambitious, overblown, self-important, and ultimately good album. Skepticism is called for, especially considering that this is both a double album and a contemporary Ryan Adams record, but if anything, Cold Roses just proves that you should never fully count Adams out.
It’s worth asking why Cold Roses is a double album at all. Clocking in at an hour and 16 minutes, it could be trimmed down to one disc (like pretty much every double record, for that matter), but that sort of ruins the fun of letting Ryan have his gatefold CD case. More than that, Adams has done an admirable job of actually crafting the album to work as two LPs. Though the second disc may be a bit stronger overall, the first flows perfectly, connecting themes and imagery between songs and generally holding an even, compelling atmosphere. The second is louder, a bit more fleshed out, and more self-assured, compared to the quieter, more introspective first disc (with the clear exception of the barn-storming “Beautiful Sorta”).
With Adams, there’s always the danger of inconsistency, and there are certainly a few duds here, but he does a good job of starting out on the right foot. “Magnolia Mountain” is a great opener, keeping Ryan in safe territory vocally, and though not great lyrically, it’s certainly well delivered. The beautiful falsetto chorus of “Sweet Illusions” and the deeply Neil Young-influenced “Meadowlake Street” make for a perfect combination, leading into the gorgeous “When Will You Come Back Home?”—a Heartbreaker-caliber ballad that’s undeniably saccharine. The intro to “Beautiful Sorta” is painful, but the song itself is a rollicking good time, complete with suicide allusions (always important).
The first major snag here is “Cherry Lane,” a song too precious for its own good. Ryan opens with a yodel and has a Bright Eyes moment mid-way through the song that sours the whole thing. “Mockingbird” plays off an awkward chorus, but other than that it’s a pleasant if not particularly noteworthy song. Luckily, Ryan manages to close out the first disc with the shuffling ballad “How do you Keep Love Alive,” a song so heartfelt you have to wonder where this was hiding under the bluster and ego of Rock N Roll.
With “Easy Plateau,” Ryan immediately sets disc two up as the more country-rock half of Cold Roses. “Let it Ride” is full on inbred (Delta Queen! Bar till 3! Tennessee!), and I mean that in the best way; it’s also one of the tracks that seems to best capture the spirit of there actually being a backing band involved here, and the song benefits from it. “Rosebud” is forgettable, but the title track manages to link a soulful chorus into an otherwise rock cut, making up for Ryan being in “screech” mode for most of the song.
“If I am a Stranger” is the strongest song on the second disc, letting Ryan show off his pipes and prove that he can write a compelling country song with no embarrassing lines. He follows it up with “Dance All Night,” a pleasant, romantic number, but then falls flat on “Blossom,” where the music bears little relation to the lyrics, and Ryan just can’t pull off the high notes. Despite a few clunky lines, “Life is Beautiful” comes across well, largely because it has one of the catchier choruses on the album, but closer “Friends” is a bit nondescript.
Somehow, it all works remarkably well together. There are a number of songs that feel like guilty pleasures, and the Gram Parsons/Bob Dylan/Neil Young influences are worn on Adam’s sleeve, but lets face it: we’d all rather hear Ryan doing this than trying to bite ‘70s FM rock or Brit-pop shoegazer nonsense. When he puts the effort into it, and plays down the fact that he is wunderkid Ryan Adams, here to save [insert musical genre], Ryan can make some lovely, deeply affecting songs. It’s been a while since we last saw him pull it off, but Cold Roses really is a reassuring return to form.