Prior to his big hit “New York, New York” I had never heard of Ryan Adams. I had never heard of his first band Whiskeytown either. In the aftermath of 911, “New York, New York” and it’s accompanying video were in high rotation around the U.S. I quickly purchased his album “Gold” and absolutely loved it. I suggested the song “Firecracker” from that record be played at our wedding, but the Rock Chick quickly shouted me down. I immediately went Sharky’s Machine on her so it turned out alright.
I’m not a big country or alt-country guy, but I dug Ryan Adams. I quickly went out and bought his best LP, 2000’s “Heartbreaker,” and loved it. There was something I could relate to on those early albums… I stuck with him through “Demolition,” which I actually thought was a strong, if disjointed album and the odd, simultaneously released “Love Is Hell” and “Rock N Roll” period. After that I purchased every LP he put out – including the awful, awful “29” (seriously, avoid that album) and the puzzling “III/IV”double LP.
There seems to be two styles Ryan veers between. There’s the acoustic, alt-country, heart broken balladeer, which as a man who dated as long as I did, I loved. “Oh My Sweet Caroline” with Emmy Lou Harris on the harmony is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. On the LP “Demolition,” the song “Dear Chicago” grabs me by the heart strings. The other direction, which I like less, is this new wavy, Smith’s sounding mope rock. It’s most represented by the LP’s “Rock N Roll” and to a lesser degree his eponymously titled LP from 2014. I tend to like Ryan best when he’s mixing the acoustic and the electric, the light and dark, like on the LP’s “Cold Roses,” the excellent “Easy Tiger” or “Cardinology.”
Clearly, I was a big Ryan Adams fan. But I don’t know what happened, my ardor for his music cooled. I saw Ryan in concert, the only concert I’ve ever attended by myself as the Rock Chick is not into Ryan Adams and she refused to attend. She drags an imaginary knife over her wrist whenever she catches me listening to Ryan. There are some bands who haven’t clicked for me until I see them live. The music just springs out at me and suddenly I get it. With Ryan it was the opposite. It was a short show. I’d been reading playlists on-line in anticipation and he cut the setlist short. It was clear Kansas City was not a priority stop for him, despite the theater being at capacity. His on stage presence was the opposite of charismatic, he was annoying. Then, in 2011 his “Ashes & Fire” LP, which was more in the acoustic mold left me cold as well. It was an OK album but I just couldn’t connect with anything past the first single.
When his 2014 self-titled LP came out, I didn’t even bother to buy it, which was a first. The first single was a rocker, “Gimme Something Good,” but it too left me unmoved. But then, Ryan committed what I considered an unforgivable sin… He did a start to finish cover of Taylor Swift’s “1989” album and actually released it. I had read Ryan did the same thing back in the day, when he’d recorded a cover of the Stroke’s debut LP. The Strokes I can understand but Taylor Swift? Are you fucking kidding me? That’s a name I never thought I’d be typing in the hallowed pages of BourbonAndVinyl. At that point, the man was dead to me. I did read recently he regrets it. He said it was supposed to be something fun, or maybe funny, and that the backlash has been harsh. I’d hope so.
Now, fresh on the heels of his break up/divorce with the attractive Mandy Moore, Ryan is set to release his next LP, “Prisoner.” The Rock Chick merely said, when I told her he had a new album coming, “Oh, great more suicide rock.” I thought to myself, well, Ryan is always best when he’s bummed out. Maybe, just maybe it’s time to check him out again. I’m not sure if I’ll even review his new LP or not… but I feel forced to comment on the first two songs that he’s released so far…
The first track, “Do You Still Love Me” is sonically very similar to “Gimme Something Good.” His vocal is extremely anguished Ryan Adams. It’s hard not to hear this as a plea to his ex-wife. It’s in the electric guitar rock vein of “Rock N Roll.” It rocks but let’s not kid ourselves, this isn’t music you’re going to play at a party. On the surface I like the song, but I have to admit, I felt myself cringe a little bit. The Rock Chick, predictably, hated the tune. It’s like accidentally reading someone’s diary. I think it’s a solid tune, but for some reason I felt it hard to listen to. Obviously, I can’t say I recommend this tune. Maybe it’ll grow on me.
The second track released so far, “To Be Without You,” is an acoustic strummer. Light drums drive the song forward. The vocal is less tortured. I have to admit, despite my turning away from Ryan Adams, this is an excellent Ryan Adams song. It reminds of “Lucky Now” the excellent single from “Ashes & Fire.” For the first time in a long time a Ryan Adams song has grabbed me. I love the acoustic guitar figure he plays on this (I don’t think you can call anything acoustic a “riff” can you?) The lyric is more muted than “Do You Still Love Me,” and even though seems more personal is made less so by the lack of histrionics in the vocals. I’d actually say this one is worth checking out. But as with all things Ryan Adams any more, I’ll caveat it with, a) buyer beware and b) you really have to like Ryan Adams and his style of music to get into.
I don’t know if “Prisoner” will the be the LP that gets me back into Ryan Adams. As usual, I find myself confounded by the first two songs I’ve heard. I’m digging one of them, and luke warm on the other. Only time will tell….