Ryan Adams and the Cardinals

Jacksonville City Nights

(Lost Highway; 2005)

By David Greenwald | 27 September 2005

Ryan Adams' second album of the year has all the trappings of a “Serious Ryan Adams Artistic Statement.” He’s already put an impressive double-disc set to satiate the press and fans, hoping the feel-good buzz will carry over to this fourteen-track return to his “roots.” He is and has always been a country musician in the way that David Bowie is a glam-rocker – he is when it suits him. Much of the criticism leveled at poor Ryan is for his genre-hopping (is he in Oasis, The Rolling Stones, or The Cure this week?), which is unfair. If Bowie had started out in a style built on “authenticity” rather than just the opposite, would anything after _Aladdin Sane_ be considered important? For all his time in a seminal alt-country group, Ryan’s never really put out a country album proper, anyway; even _Heartbreaker_, as affecting and Country Music Lyrical Themes worthy as it is, goes easy on the twang. Here, finally, Ryan hits the liquor-drenched honky-tonk with gusto, to mixed results. "My Heart Is Broken” is an embarrassment, the kind of tune so generic, so maudlin, that it could have been written by anyone (and by anyone, I mean Gram Parsons) in the history of country music. Ostensibly, it’s a lament about “if I hadn’t cheated / while you were away,” but it couldn’t possibly be that skin-deep, could it? Ryan couldn’t possibly write a chorus that clichéd and take it seriously at this point in his career – it must really be by Garth Brooks or Kenny Chesney or someone who I can make fun of. Maybe it’s a really, really old country standard, or maybe it’s Ryan’s idea of a joke --- you know, proving that he can write the archetypical country song: “My heart is broken, my love is gone / I lay here without you, your pillow cold / I am forsaken, I can’t go on.” I could go on, and tell you that “Withering Heights” is a knock-off of _Love Is Hell_'s “Shadowlands,” “Silver Bullets” is utterly forgettable, “Peaceful Valley” finds Ryan losing the battle against whininess, and "PA" would be a moving Willie Nelson-style ode if the awkward time signature matched the quality of the lyrics. If I did that, though, I’d just be overcompensating for my fanboy enthusiasm for the rest of the record: of _JCN_'s fourteen songs, most of the remaining ten are excellent. I usually don’t agree with detractors who claim he writes too many songs, but Ryan should’ve made this an EP; the first five tracks of the album are flawless. If there’s one Parsons trait that his modern heir has improved upon, it’s the magnificent duets. From Caitlyn Cary and Emmylou Harris to this year’s Rachel Yamagata and Norah Jones, his choice in female harmonizers is uniformly strong. It’s all the more impressive that he keeps up with them, as he does with the surprisingly at-home Jones on “Dear John.” Ryan takes the high parts while Jones plays up her deep, husky alto, letting the voices carry a rare understated arrangement. The finest moment comes early. “The End” starts out safe enough, in benign waltz time with lyrics about an absent father not knowing his name. It’s all pretty familiar, until the chorus arrives. It’s the most intense moment of the album: “Oh Jacksonville,” he sings about his hometown, “how you burden my soul / how you hold all my dreams captive.” By the fourth mention of the city’s name, he’s calling it “Jacksonhell.” Even the song itself provides a prison, with the waltzing, medium-paced drums refusing to give way to Ryan’s fiery outcry. The album is far from over, and next track “Hard Way To Fall” finds him watching an old love walk about her house, doing everyday things. It’s a sweet, detailed envisioning, sealed by Ryan’s regretful gruffness: “Oh my God, when she was mine.” The album’s weaker second half features a few charmers in the bluesy, chugging “Trains” and the sad-eyed “September,” a spare folk song more in line with his _Heartbreaker_ material. If nothing else, Ryan has succeeded in creating a classic-sounding country album filled with time-honored themes. Cash and Nelson would be proud--but they’d also say that pedal steel guitars and an exaggerated accent are no substitute for great songwriting. Genuine country being a semi-forgotten subgenre at this point, _Jacksonville City Nights_ earns the dubious distinction of being the best (if only) old-time country album in wide release this year. Still, there’s a lot of filler here, even for Ryan, and so the album also earns an even more dubious distinction: for first time in four years, I’m going to refer to a Ryan Adams album as being merely “pretty good.”