David Ryan Adams was born in Jacksonville, North Carolina in late 1974 and endured what he called a dysfunctional upbringing that has left its mark on his singular style. A lover of cult fiction who began learning the electric guitar in earnest as a 14-year old Ryan was a member of the legendary Patty Duke Syndrome who went on to form Whiskeytown where a combination of punk rock and country leanings shaped his attitude. His solo debut is Heartbreaker, produced by Ethan Johns and here Ryan lays down a marker by working with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings as well as Emmylou Harris. Critically well received – most of his output has wowed the scribbling brigade – that was followed by Gold for Lost Highway, a label within our compass. Grammy nominations ensued thanks to the startling inclusion of tracks like “New York, New York” and “Answering Bell,” the latter featuring Crows’ man Adam Duritz. The artist responsible wasn’t too pleased with the 2002 disc Demolition but we like it fine. Songs as good as “Nuclear” and “Desire” shadow a vein of romanticism and massively uplifting tunesmanship that has always stood him in good stead.
No problems either with Rock n Roll (2003) where he benefits from a sojourn in Manhattan and a producer in James Barber who draws out great performances. Hooks, lyrical smarts and Ryan’s lived-in vocals drag “This Is It” and the epic “So Alive” into an urban sunshine and there are notable assists from Parker Posey and Melissa Auf der Maur to add light and shade.
Love Is Hell (2004) teams Ryan with British producer John Porter and stamps a solid country vibe on “English Girls Approximately” (featuring his friend Marianna Faithfull) and the majority of cuts where guitarist Greg Leisz adds his distinctive mark. Always apt to cast an eye to Britpop, in whatever guise you choose to interpret that phrase, this is also where he tackles Noel Gallagher’s “Wonderwall” and does that familiar tune full justice.
His first album with The Cardinals is the delicious Cold Roses where the boy wonder strides out like a good ‘un. This is a double-disc delight that is wholeheartedly recommended as an entry-level choice for those who may not be familiar with Ryan’s work. Consistent and listenable, it remains a classic today. So does the second part of a trilogy spanning seven months in which Ryan and The Cardinals go for broke, namely Jacksonville City Nights, swiftly followed by 29. Bergen White’s Nashville String Machine augments pedal-steel guitar, violin and upfront use of piano and Mr Adams parlays his reputation into chart gold.
Back with Johns for 29 the sales start to match the word of mouth fan base. Ever elusive and recalcitrant Ryan outfoxes the general trend by casting his gaze back to country era Grateful Dead and early Neil Young. What’s not to like on a disc that is his most autobiographical and self-contained to date?
He deserved a break and took two years to come up with Easy Tiger, enlisting the noted bass player Neil Casale and bassist Chris Feinstein on an album that explores his most complex writing and makes good use of Electric Lady Studios – a classic choice for an album with high ambition and a touch of rock tinged outer-coating. We love this album and think you will too; it certainly deserves discovering now. After the expanded Follow the Lights (2007) that includes a fine version of the Alice in Chains song “Down in a Hole” Adams reached the end of his contract with Lost Highway on the aptly-named Cardinology, not however an anthology. A brutally frank and open-hearted disc, the most cutting track is probably “Stop”, a disarmingly sharp examination of substance abuse Adams has seldom bothered to disguise himself from his work in that time-honoured ‘oh my songs are just universal truths” type of way. In any case his status is assured by now with chart slots in major territories and a live reputation that is beyond dispute. Ever contrary he then embarks on the heavy metal flavoured Orion and a return to independent values on his own Pax Americana Recording Company, mixing and matching the styles of his youth with fervent abandon. He re-enters our orbit with Ashes & Fire, produced by Glyn Johns (see how that squares the circle!) and delivering his first top 10 album since Easy Tiger. This is a disc that delivers all the goods, all the time and bang on time. It’s another one of his essentials: check the quality of “Lucky Now” and the lovely title-track and ponder over the back-up where Adams is enhanced to full effect by Leisz, Benmont Tench, Norah Jones (on piano and backing vocals) and old flame Mandy Moore. Suffice to say, Ashes & Fire is an indication that this man has got better with age and with the process of aging up. It’s a gem of a recording.
Hit 2014 and he might as well release a self-titled disc. Ryan Adams is that beast and it’s also self-produced and heavy on atmospherics. Asked why the plain old moniker Adams was as amusing as ever when he remarked that coming up with titles was starting to bug him since everything sounded like an old-fashioned King Crimson prog concept. An overstatement it may be, but it’s a funny way out of a quandary.
Always apt to be lost in the moment when a passion for youthful rock and roll supersedes pretensions to high art Ryan Adams is very much his own man and a one-off. Ornery enough but true to himself. Not many artists would part company with a producer of Glyn Johns reputation because they didn’t want to enter the hallowed ground of Sunset Sound. Johnny Depp pops up on this latter-day disc too, adding some fiery guitar lines to “Kim” and "Feels Like Fire”.
While his live shows have become cult items in their own right, they sell out in minutes, Ryan Adams star remains on the up. He’s had recent Grammy nominations and proven capable of forging an alliance between indie chutzpah and establishment releases with added DIY control. He’s never claimed to be the perfect answer but what was the question? If the answer is great music then Ryan’s your man. Check him out. You’ll be glad you did. And, more likely, surprised that you didn’t do so before.
Gold came out in the late summer of 2001. The opening track, "New York New York," became something of a rallying cry for me (and other New Yorkers and Americans) after 9/11, even though the song-- as one colleague described it, "Tangled Up in Blue" played fast-- is about a girl, not a city. (Adams sometimes writes about a girl by using the name of a city he associates with her; see also, "Dear Chicago.") But the very fact that this tune evoked the familiar Dylan song is precisely what makes this work so compelling and timeless. OK, so given the timing, that tune sucked me into the record, in a very visceral way. But the whole thing had masterpiece written all over it from the very first spin at my home in September of 2001. As my wife so aptly said, "It has that sweet familliar ring of every album you ever loved as a kid." Which, if you are our age, means it feels like Van Morrison, Neil Young, Dylan, Exile-era Stones, like that. It hits you in that "Into the Mystic," "Brown Sugar," "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere" place. Do you like that place? Yeah, me too. Adams is so prolific an artist that he is generally an album or two ahead of his fans; by February of 2001 he was playing these rockers to rooms full of alt.country romantics who wanted to moon with him over the Heartbreaker songs. But now, four years on, "New York New York," "Answering Bell," "Stars Go Blue," and "Rescue Blues" sound like songs you've known all your life, and are warmly greeted in concert as the masterworks they are. Adams is a polarizing figure; people tend to have strong opinions toward him, either way. I obviously lean toward the "love everything he touches" camp. But divorced from the public persona, the music on this disc stands up to the closest scrutiny, taps into a classic vein defined by the artists listed above (and more recently, by Lucinda Williams and Counting Crows). I hate to compare one artist to others, but I find it a helpful construct in providing buying advice; its the "recommended if you like..." concept. If you've read this far, I think you know whether you want to buy this or not. If not, I'll add that if I were to suggest a single title to someone interested in getting their ears wet with Adams, this would be the one. I think you can find traces of every direction he's gone in, before and since, on this album. It is long (70 minutes or so), but in a sweeping sort of way; I can listen to it all the way through and not find a single song I want to cut.
Words: J. Chasin
As Whiskeytown finally ground to a halt in the wake of an astonishing number of personal changes following Faithless Street (coupled with record company problems that kept their final album, Pneumonia, from reaching stores until two years after it was recorded), Ryan Adams ducked into a Nashville studio for two weeks of sessions with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. While arch traditionalists Welch and Rawlings would hardly seem like a likely match for alt-country's bad boy, the collaboration brought out the best in Adams; Heartbreaker is loose, open, and heartfelt in a way Whiskeytown's admittedly fine albums never were, and makes as strong a case for Adams' gifts as anything his band ever released. With the exception of the Stones-flavored "Shakedown on 9th Street" and the swaggering "To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)," Heartbreaker leaves rock & roll on the shelf in favor of a sound that blends low-key folk-rock with a rootsy, bluegrass-accented undertow, and while the album's production and arrangements are subtle and spare, they make up in emotional impact whatever they lack in volume. As a songwriter, Adams concerns himself with the ups and downs of romance rather than the post-teenage angst that dominated Whiskeytown's work, and "My Winding Wheel" and "Damn, Sam (I Love a Woman That Rains)" are warmly optimistic in a way he's rarely been before, while "Come Pick Me Up" shows he's still eloquently in touch with heartbreak. Adams has always been a strong vocalist, but his duet with Emmylou Harris on "Oh My Sweet Carolina" may well be his finest hour as a singer, and the stripped-back sound of these sessions allows him to explore the nooks and crannies of his voice, and the results are pleasing. Whiskeytown fans who loved the "Replacements-go-twang" crunch of "Drank Like a River" and "Yesterday's News" might have a hard time warming up to Heartbreaker, but the strength of the material and the performances suggest Adams is finally gaining some much-needed maturity, and his music is all the better for it.
Words: Mark Deming
Last time we received a dispatch from Ryan Adams, the self-styled savior of rock & roll, it was in 2003, when he delivered his straight-up rock & roll record (aptly titled Rock N Roll) and his two-part mope-rock EP (later combined as one LP) Love Is Hell. Admirable records both, but not quite the sequel to Heartbreaker that fans craved. They also weren't quite as successful as all the hype surrounding their release suggested that they would be, so Adams briefly retreated from the spotlight to regroup, heading back in 2005 with a planned triptych of new albums, the first of which is the double-album Cold Roses, recorded with his new backing band the Cardinals and released at the beginning of May. Three albums in one year is overkill even for an artist predisposed to releasing his every whim, and while it's too early at this writing to judge whether he needed to release all three of the records, it's safe to say that Cold Roses is the record many fans have been waiting to hear -- a full-fledged, unapologetic return to the country-rock that made his reputation when he led Whiskeytown. Not that the album is a retreat, or a crass attempt to give the people what they want, but it's an assured, comfortable collection of 18 songs that play to Adams' strengths because they capture him not trying quite so hard. He settles into a warm, burnished, countryish groove not far removed from vintage Harvest-era Neil Young at the beginning and keeps it going over the course of a double-disc set that isn't all that long. With the first disc clocking in at 39:39 and the second at 36:29, this could easily have been released as a single-disc set, but splitting it into two and packaging it as a mock-gatefold LP is classic Ryan Adams, highlighting both his flair for rock classicism and his tendency to come across slightly affected. As always, he's so obsessive about fitting into classic rock's long lineage that he can be slightly embarrassing -- particularly on the intro to "Beautiful Sorta," which apes David Johansen's intro to the New York Dolls' "Looking for a Kiss" in a way that guarantees a cringe -- which is also a problem when he drifts toward lazy, profanity-riddled lyrics ("this sh*t just f*cks you up" on "Cherry Lane") that undercut a generally strong set of writing. But what makes Cold Roses a success, his first genuine one since Heartbreaker, is that it is a genuine band album, with the Cardinals not only getting co-writing credits but helping Adams relax and let the music flow naturally. It's not the sound of somebody striving to save rock & roll, or even to be important, but that's precisely why this is the easiest Ryan Adams to enjoy. The coming months with their coming LPs will reveal whether this is indeed a shift in his point of view, or just a brief break from his trademark blustering braggadocio.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Ever since the big, splashy Gold failed to make Ryan Adams an all-conquering superstar -- it bolstered his reputation as a rock critic darling, but never had the sales to match the press -- he's retreated to genre exercises, beginning with the sleek modern rock of 2003's Rock N Roll and its moody alt-rock counterpart, Love Is Hell, carrying through to his Neil Young/Grateful Dead pastiche on his spring 2005 double album, Cold Roses, and now its autumn sequel, Jacksonville City Nights. Arriving a little over four months after Cold Roses as the second installment of a planned trilogy of 2005 releases, Jacksonville City Nights -- which at one point was going to be called the less-evocative but calendar-specific September -- is Adams' straight-up, straight-ahead country album, a lean 46-minute collection of 14 songs designed for late-night drinking. While the terrific cover art deliberately echoes classic '60s country LPs, the sound of the album isn't quite as honky tonk as that suggests, thanks to a handful of brooding numbers like "September" that are too introspective, lyric-centered, and light on melody to truly qualify as classicist country. These are the weakest moments here, but they're also the exception to the rule, since most of the songs here represent a number of classic country archetypes, from the opening pair of barroom anthems, "A Kiss Before I Go" and "The End," to his "Dear John" duet with Norah Jones or the light hillbilly swagger of the galloping "Trains" and how "My Heart Is Broken" is sweetened by just enough swings to give it a candy coating but not enough to turn it into countrypolitan schmaltz. As good as these cuts sound, it's still hard not to shake the suspicion that Ryan Adams is primarily a pastiche artist, since it's not only easy to spot influences throughout the album, but because the atmosphere of the record makes more of an impression than the individual songs. That said, Jacksonville City Nights still ranks as one of Adams' stronger albums, not just because he's returning to his rootsy roots -- after all, this isn't alt-country, this is pure country -- but because it maintains a consistent mood, is tightly edited and well sequenced, and thanks to the Cardinals, has the easy assurance of Cold Roses, which is preferable to the somewhat desperate feel of the records immediately following Heartbreaker. It may not all add up to a major statement, which is something Gold and Rock N Roll aspired to be, but it surely makes for a more likeable and ultimately more listenable album.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Easy Tiger has a "slow it down there, pal" undertone to its title -- and who needs a word of caution other than Ryan Adams himself, who notoriously spread himself far and wide in the years following his 2000 breakthrough Heartbreaker. After celebrating his 30th birthday with a flurry of albums in one year, Adams decided to pull back, hunker down, and craft one solid album that deliberately plays to his strength. As such, Easy Tiger could easily be seen as the album that many of his fans have wanted to hear since Heartbreaker, a record that is tight and grounded in country-rock. Easy Tiger is focused, but so have been some of the other thematic albums Adams has delivered with such gusto -- when he tried to run with the Strokes on Rock N Roll, mimicked the Smiths and Jeff Buckley on Love Is Hell, even turned out a full-on country album in Jacksonville City Nights, complete with knowing retro cover art, he stayed true to his concept -- but the cumulative effect of the records was to make him seem scattered, even if the records could work on their own merits. With each album since the wannabe blockbuster of 2001's Gold, his restlessness has seemed not diverse but reckless, so even his good albums seemed to contribute to the mess. Easy Tiger intends to break this perception by being concise, right down to how every one but one of these tight 13 songs clock in somewhere between the two-and-a-half and three-and-a-half minute mark. For somebody as doggedly conceptual as Adams, this is surely a deliberate move, one designed to shore up support among supporters (no matter if they're fans or critics), which Easy Tiger very well might. Surely, it is a welcoming album in many ways, partially due to the relaxed Deadhead vibe Adams strikes up with his band the Cardinals, reminiscent of 2005's fine Cold Roses. But if that CD sprawled, this one is succinct, as Adams flits through country-rockers and weepers -- plus the occasional rock detour, like anthemic '80s arena rocker "Halloween Head" or the spacy "The Sun Also Sets," a dead ringer for Grant Lee Phillips -- containing not an ounce of fat. Adams benefits from the brevity, most notably on the sweetly melancholy "Everybody Knows," the straight-up country of "Tears of Gold," or on "Two," which mines new material out of the timeworn "two become one" conceit. Here, his songs don't stick around longer than necessary, so they linger longer in memory, but the relentless onward march of Easy Tiger also gives the performances an efficiency bordering on disinterest, which is its Achilles' heel. As fine as some of the songs are, as welcoming as the overall feel of the record is, it seems a bit like Adams is giving his fans (and label) "Ryan Adams by numbers," hitting all the marks but without passion. This is when his craft learned from incessant writing kicks in -- he can fashion these tunes into something sturdy and appealing -- but it also highlights how he can turn out a tune as lazily as he relies on casual profanity to his detriment. Ultimately, these flaws are minor, since Easy Tiger delivers what it promises: the most Ryan Adamsy Ryan Adams record since his first. For some fans, it's exactly what they've been waiting for, for others it'll be entirely too tidy, but don't worry -- if Adams has proven to be anything it's reliably messy, and he's sure to get ragged again somewhere down the road (and based on his past record, safe money is on October 2007).
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Returning refreshed after a three-year hiatus -- 2010’s III/IV dating back to 2006 sessions -- Ryan Adams dives headfirst into early-‘70s Dylan with Ashes & Fire, his first record since disbanding the Cardinals. Adams developed an easy, graceful chemistry with the Cardinals, a connection as apparent on loping homages to the Grateful Dead as it was on approximations of honky tonk, a connection absent yet still felt on Ashes & Fire, which retains a similar relaxed gait as the Cardinals at their softest. Unlike all his albums with the Cardinals, this isn’t a record where the musicianship is placed at the forefront, this is a singer/songwriter record, the music -- including exquisite coloring from Heartbreaker keyboardist Benmont Tench -- serving as a warm bed for Adams’ rambling words. Tempos are never quick -- at best, “Chains of Love” skips along amiably -- and the melodies remain fuzzily in focus, so Ashes & Fire winds up as ever-shifting mood music, sustaining an appealingly lazy haze residing somewhere south of melancholy. Adams may have his sad moments, he may look outside his window and see signs of doom, but he’s not torturing himself, he’s finding comfort in being blue because most of the time, he’s relaxed within his skin.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Even the most prolific artists need a break and so it was with Ryan Adams. After a great burst of creativity that resulted in four albums' worth of material in two years -- Orion plus the double-LP III/IV in 2010, followed by Ashes & Fire in 2011 –- Adams took a three-year hiatus, dabbling in side projects and productions, breaking up his longtime backing band the Cardinals, and eventually re-emerging in 2014 with a self-titled album. The old canard says an eponymous album released well into a career suggests a rebirth, and that's somewhat true of Ryan Adams, which largely ditches the Dead obsessions, ragged country-rock, and occasional noise squall for precision-tuned audio straight out of 1981. He still finds space for the spare "My Wrecking Ball," an intimate piece of acoustica that recalls the spartan Heartbreaker, but not unlike Jenny Lewis' The Voyager, which Adams also produced, craft is the order of the day here, from the expertly carved bones of the songs to the fathomless shimmer of the album's surface. Unlike Love Is Hell, which wallowed in murk, or the self-styled dazzle of Gold, Ryan Adams is designed for comfort, placing as much import on the rolling aural waves as what lays within a song. This suppleness is quite alluring: Ryan Adams is a record that can slip into the background, providing the soundtrack to anything from heartbreak to a lazy Sunday morning. If Ryan Adams was merely sonic candy, it would've been enough, but this is also one of Adams' cannily constructed records, one that runs deliberately lean. Whenever the soft shimmer of his Yacht Rock resurrection yields, it's to draw attention to his vulnerability: "My Wrecking Ball" and the Springsteen rockabilly homage "I Just Might," the bittersweet twilight coda "Let Go," all seem stronger because they're departures from the purposeful polish. These songs puncture the gloss, so they make the greatest first impression, but that glimmer remains the reason to get lost within Ryan Adams: his blend of song and studio craft turns this eponymous album into the equivalent of a substantive, new millennial version of the Eagles' Long Run.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Sobriety agrees with Ryan Adams, giving him the one thing he's always lacked: focus. Easy Tiger suggested as much, with its tight, clean lines supported by its rehab-celebrating publicity, but its 2008 sequel, Cardinology, reveals that this straight and narrow path was no new detour for Adams, but rather the main road. It's the first time in his solo career that Adams has tread the same trail for two albums in a row, which only confirms the suspicion that now that Adams is sober, he's getting down to the business of being the troubadour he's always aspired to be, assisted by a band so sympathetic to his style that he's named his album after them. In a certain sense, Cardinology does play as a showcase for everything that Ryan Adams & the Cardinals can do: it's rooted in Deadsy country-rock but frequently strays into '80s alt-rock territory, whether it's the sighing, romantic "Cobwebs" or how "Magick" echoes like prime U2. The Cardinals shift moods with ease but Cardinology isn't quite a showcase for how the band plays -- it's too intimate and too concentrated on the songs to be a record about the group itself, nor is it about Adams' range, as earlier records like Gold were. This is a very simple, classicist singer/songwriter album where the pleasure is within the songs themselves, how "Born into a Light" unfolds with understated grace, how "Let Us Down Easy" glides into its call-and-response chorus, how "Natural Ghost" has a comforting spectral quality, how "Evergreen" skips delicately, how the details in "Sink Ships" spill out to its loping beat. These are modest pleasures, but these days Ryan Adams is all about carefully measured craft instead of big statements, a tradeoff that makes his albums more predictable but also more satisfying, as Cardinology quietly proves.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Ryan Adams... what can I say. To all you people that still ask me: "Don't you mean Bryan Adams?" when I mention his name should have their music listening priviliges revoked. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to take anything away from Bryan Adams, but please, get educated. If you don't know about Ryan Adams, get to. This album, as all his other ones apart from "Revolver" should be in every self-respecting album collector's posession. The guitar riff on "Monsters" is something to be marvelled at. I have been playing guitar for 15 years, and I find that Ryan Adams writes guitar riffs that are so natural to play, it's almost as if they already existed, Ryan just discovered them. "Love is Hell" and "Shadowlands" deserve an honourary mention just due to the brilliant mastering, and "Wonderwall", in my opinion, is played better than Oasis, a feat not easily done. I am slightly biased towards this album due to my complete awe for Ryan Adams' work, but please, do not rob yourself of this album. If you don't have it, buy it. If you have it, play it. If you don't like it, play it 100 more times, because eventually you will like it, and love it. When that time comes, you will see that Ryan Adams, when understood, is the moody Cat Stevens of our generation.
Words: Jonny Panic
Although he is now on this third LP released inside a year's time, Ryan Adams is still sounding magnificent as ever on his latest release "29," a distinctly lo-fi record that is typical Adams yet does not sound recycled and is wall-to-wall slow-burning rootsy musical rapture. Starting the journey with the rousing title track, Adams delivers one of his most addictive melodies yet. He fuses the storytelling qualities of Bruce Springsteen with guitar chords that echo the best of Eric Clapton's heyday and a sense of humor reminiscent of Todd Rundgren, yet still retains his own personality. Listeners will realize that his recent overwhelming artistic output has not resulted in a low-quality release, but quite the opposite. "I got arrested down south for hitting a clerk/I spit in his face, the bastard knocked me out/He leered at my lady and then he touched her face/Thank God she had the money to bail me out/Singing and dancing to them nighttime songs/Cry me a river till the morning comes." The overall state of the record is moody and introspective, starkly contrasting to the joyous feel of May's "Cold Roses" but not resigning to the soporific subject matter that plagued the honky-tonk of September's "Jacksonville City Nights." This is perhaps exemplified best by "Elizabeth, You Were Born to Play That Part," an ode to the kind of love one simply cannot let go of. Adams ingeniously lets his chords simmer slowly to reflect the lyrics and the understated urgency with which he pours them out, allowing even listeners who cannot relate to empathize with the situation of the song. However, the melancholy atmosphere of the collection does not mean there is some positive subject matter. Indeed, in "Starlite Diner" he discovers that it is indeed "possible to love someone too much," for the vulnerability it brings can come at a great cost, but at the song's end he finds his love is reciprocated. Also, "Blue Sky Blues" retains an undercurrent of doubt yet still manages to be the ultimate in romantic. "I can take care of you/But only if you want/I'm strong enough to carry you/Across the icy lake, across the icy lake/But I cant fight your blues/'Cause I know I'll lose/What's left of my mind/I can't win, but for you I will try/My baby blue." Further high notes include "Strawberry Wine" with its conversational southern porch swing air, the eerie storylines of "Carolina Rain" and "Voices" and the veering song structure of "The Sadness" complete with Latin tinges a la Zorro. Overall, "29" is another typical Adams record, but in this case that is a good thing. The songs are high quality, his playing is pitch perfect and there is no filler. Don't let the slim nine tracks fool you, either; the record clocks in at a solid 49 minutes.
Words: Rudy Palma