By Maura McAndrew | 13 October 2014
In a way, it makes sense that Ryan Adams would make a good producer. He’s someone who works on instinct and doesn’t overthink things—the type who encourages artists to work the same way, nudging them along if they get stuck on something, urging them to move on. His famously prolific output as a solo artist seems to stem from the belief that tinkering and revising and shelving songs until later do not necessarily make better rock’n’roll music. This easygoing attitude has both helped his overall sound and hurt his career; it’s the main complaint of his detractors. However, as the music industry caters more to the short memory of the music-buying public and loses a focus on the album-as-masterpiece, Adams has found his natural tendencies gelling with the times.
His new self-titled record, then, is typically organic-sounding and ever-so-slightly undercooked, though it manages to revive much of the old energy lacking his last downbeat effort, Ashes and Fire (2011). Ryan Adams is about half Gold (2001) and half Rock N Roll (2003) (the good half), and it’s also a little half-assed. But to complain about that would be to wish Adams was someone else entirely; if he had the commitment of, say, Bruce Springsteen, then he wouldn’t be the impetuous fuck-up we know and love (Ryan Adams would never have shelved The Promise). A little more effort and he’d probably be selling out arenas, and I don’t think anyone, especially Adams himself, wants that.
The first thing most people will notice about Ryan Adams is that it sounds quite a bit like Gold, Adams’s most commercially successful effort to date. Since Gold, a lot of shit has happened in Adams’s life, from drugs to illness to onstage meltdowns to marriage, and through it all he has put out record after record, in genres ranging from country to ’70s rock to “sci-fi metal.” Since Ashes and Fire he has taken an uncharacteristic two-year break, and it shows. Adams will never be a tinkerer, but the songs on Ryan Adams feel like they were chosen, worked on, and loved a little bit, and Adams’s raw talent is such that that’s all it really takes to put together a very fine record indeed—close if not quite as sharp as Gold and its predecessor (my pick for best Adams album) Heartbreaker (2000).
Ryan Adams boldly begins on a somewhat hopeless note with “Gimme Something Good”: “I can’t talk / My mind is so blank / So I’m going for a walk / I’ve got nothing left to say.” This is not true, of course, in the literal sense, as “Gimme Something Good” is followed by ten songs of reasonable verbosity. It is true in a way, however, because throughout these songs, Adams tends to write himself into familiar rock-cliché corners, as he has always done. He’s skilled not at telling stories but conjuring vague, cinematic imagery of late nights on city streets and empty bars and driving and yearning. He’s really good at it, so good that you only occasionally notice that the lyrics on Ryan Adams are lazy as hell. There are a lot of repeat images and easy rhymes. This one from “Feels Like Fire” bothers me every time: “I feel the sunlight / The sunlight on my face / It’s cold out here / Lost in outer space.”
That said, “Feels Like Fire “ is a fantastic song anyway, with an upbeat Springsteen-stomp and an instantly catchy chorus. And what’s impressive is that almost every song on Ryan Adams has a similar classic rock hook that digs in and won’t let go. The record has a few slow-starters, but almost every time you’re about to skip to the next track, Adams’s voice melts into another satisfying, thump-the-steering-wheel refrain. “Feels Like Fire” is a great example of the marriage of rock cliché with just enough emotional honesty to make it feel fresh, at least in the moment: “Just so you know / You will always be the hardest / Thing I will let go / Driving past your church / And all the houses in a row / The feeling in my chest is fire.” And it’s such a galvanizing melody that even less would have sufficed. Similarly catchy highlights are the country-tinged chorus of “Gimme Something Good,” “Kim,” which recalls the good songs from Rock N Roll, the ’80s-sounding “I Just Might,” and the truly pretty closer “Let Go,” which reminds us of Adams’s alt-country roots, and his ability to write and sing a beautiful acoustic ballad.
As with any Ryan Adams record, there are few duds here, mainly the songs that lean a little too much on late ’70s/‘80s rock cheese for inspiration. But at only eleven songs, Ryan Adams is an impressively restrained and consistent effort. Unlike Ashes and Fire before it, it doesn’t seem to have sacrificed its spark in favor of keeping an even keel. Does Ryan Adams find the man himself a more thoughtful and mature songwriter? Well, no. He’s just as mature and thoughtful as ever, which is to say that sometimes he’s thoughtful and sometimes he doesn’t give a shit. But Ryan Adams, is up there with his best work because while it doesn’t have a lot of sweat on it, it’s a record that feels clearly considered enough, and carefully produced to maximize Adams’s strengths—that pure talent, both in melody and voice, that keeps us coming back, album after double album after haphazard collection after album.