Ryan Adams (PAX AM, 2014)
According to the publicity for Ryan Adams’ new self-titled record, the former bad boy is finally free from personal demons and making some of his best music in years. Of course, that’s what they said about his last couple of albums, too.
Even so, it’s hard to deny that Adams’ recent output is an improvement over the mid-to-late 2000s, when he was churning out records that sometimes sounded tossed off. Adams is taking more time between albums these days, and the slower pace suits him well. This outing suggests an older and wiser artist. He seems more focused, reining in his muse to produce a lean collection of 11 songs.
Adams has long resented being called an alt-country singer, a label that has stuck since his days in the band Whiskeytown. The standout lead single, “Gimme Something Good,” tries to shake that reputation with memorable interplay between crackling electric guitar riffs and words of desperation: “All my life been shaking, wanting something / Holding everything I have like it was broken.”
If this is “happy” Ryan Adams, it’s not obvious from the album’s themes. A dark, foreboding mood pervades much of the record. Adams’ atmospheric guitar playing and use of minor keys are the scaffolding for lyrics full of haunted memories and longing, as on “Kim” and “Feels Like Fire.”
The only track that evokes his Americana past is the down-tempo folk ballad “My Wrecking Ball.” While sure to become a favorite among longtime fans, it also feels like a paint-by-numbers retread of his early work.
Despite occasional missteps, this appropriately self-titled record is a decent attempt at reintroducing Adams to his audience. You probably won’t agree these are the best songs he’s ever written, but let’s face it—given his prodigious gift, even a pretty good Ryan Adams isn’t a bad thing.
This review appeared in the December 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 12, page 42).