Few musicians can make their fans wince, cringe and facepalm quite like alt-country enfant terrible Ryan Adams. For when your favorite artist cranks out lines like “You’re like a storm tower/if it had firepower/ everything you touch burns / scorched earth, water tower,” you must do something to vent the pain. My favorite method is smacking the steering wheel and bellowing “Goddamn you, Ryan Adams!” This usually startles the passenger. Really, they’re lucky I stopped there.
When Ryan Adams is at his best, he’s magnificent. Heartbreaker, his solo debut, is lonely, powerful and promising. But Ryan Adams is not a man of noble failures. When he fucks up, he does so messily and shamefully. He plays with his mistakes like an infant glorying in a beshitted diaper – see Rock N Roll, his failed tongue-in-cheek attempt at punk rock.
It falls upon the Ryan Adams fan to not only extol his accomplishments, but defend his many flops. Excepting Rock N Roll, it’s possible to find a glimmer of brilliance in his dimmer stars – his failed experiments, his illogical outbursts, his internet solipsism. In fact, it’s easier than you think.
Jack Kerouac said of writing: “First thought, best thought.” Adams has modified this maxim to read: Every thought, best thought. Since releasing Heartbreaker in 2000, Adams has released 10 other albums, three of which hit shelves in one year (2005). He has at least four unreleased albums. One of them is a cover of The Strokes’ Is This It? While Adams was recording 2007’s Easy Tiger, he plotted a metal album in the idle time between rehearsals (track names: “Locust Pocus;” “Cobra Kadabara”). This is not a man who writes 100 songs and keeps 10; Ryan Adams writes 100,000 and keeps a few thousand.
Critics trace Adams’ lineage through folk/country legends like Gram Parsons, Willie Nelson and Jerry Garcia (a lineage made explicit in this…Gap commercial (?)). His songs are full of chronic melancholics in inescapable situations, trapped by fate, poverty, or worst of all, love. Even at their darkest, his verses are richly melodic, reaching deep into the loam and pulling out some of the truest lyrics to ever be crooned (whiskey-breathed) into a microphone. From “The End,” a manic lament: “The leaves burn like effigies of my kin/ The trains run like snakes through Pentecostal pine/Filled up with cotton and fine sloe gin.”
Too bad the crooner is such a jerk. Adams has a famously conflicted relationship with his fans; whereas alt-country acts such as the Old 97s feed from the audience’s enthusiasm, Adams seems to find it distracting and heckling. At one Nashville show, someone shouted out a request for “Summer of 69,” a song by Bryan, not Ryan, Adams (really, it was inevitable). Adams threw a fit and melted down on-stage. When a journalist tore into one of Adams’ shows, the he phoned the reporter and left a rambling, venomous message. “Fuck you, man,” Adams said. “Fuck you, you asshole. Nobody’s interested in your bullshit. You obviously have, like, a problem with me. It isn’t with the music, obviously, because you can’t refute it. It’s too good.” (Bear in mind: the “too good” music was tracks from Rock N Roll.)
In fairness, Adams had some rough years. At his worst, he took speedballs like coffee, and in 2004, he toppled off the stage at a show in England. But even after he cleaned up for 2007’s Easy Tiger, Adams was still edgy around his fans. I saw him in Columbus, Ohio that year, and his stage banter had a weird, rambling uneasiness. Before launching into Tiger single “Two,” he wrung out a fan for requesting “Come Pick Me Up,” which is probably Adams’ best song. He scolded the poor sap – who paid $30 to see Adams, and much more if he was drinking – for wanting the old Ryan Adams, a booze-soggy son of a bitch who was sad and fucked-up. He later apologized to the fan, but he even bungled that: he was more interested in being part of a band, he said, likening the experience to sex change surgery (he went into graphic detail: what parts were off, what parts were on, etc). He also dedicated one song to Albert Einstein, whom he called “Spooky E.”
Fans must routinely forgive the excesses of their idols – but what about the music?
Before critics could even finish swooning over Heartbreaker, Adams released Gold, which featured single “New York, New York.” It may sound familiar – Gold was released a few weeks after September 11, 2001, and the single became a defiant standard. But the song itself is hokey and commercial, the kind of corny you might find in a Chevy ad. Thus we begin overlooking the bad in favor of the good – the lighthearted bounce of “Answering Bell” finds Adams doing his best Van Morrison (which he does very well); “Touch, Feel, Lose” has enough soul to make Aretha Franklin blush; “When the Stars Go Blue,” in addition to being covered by Tim McGraw and The Coors, is very, very good.
Whether by timing or merit, Gold was a hit, and Adams scurried to record something darker, sadder and more credible to the sad-sack crowd. Label Lost Highway hesitated to publish Love is Hell, finding it too dour to be commercially viable. The label hedged its bets and published the album as two EPs; perhaps as a sort of revenge, Adams gave them Rock N Roll.
Insincere Ryan Adams is ugly. He’s too blunt to manage the kind of sneering cleverness that demands respect. And Rock N Roll is painfully ugly. Insincerity arcs through it like a bad joke, the punch line repeated track after track in ripped-off riffs and purposefully stupid lyrics. It has precisely three promising moments: the first 14 seconds of opener “This Is It,” before he starts singing; the crunchy blues riff on “Shallow;” and the admittedly awesome “Note To Self: Don’t Die,” which self-destructs at 2:14 before it can fuck up.
After recovering from his fall in 2004, Adams linked up with The Cardinals to record Cold Roses. After the plastic hedonism of Rock N Roll, Roses felt like a glass of water, cool and clarifying. Grateful Dead paeans like “Magnolia Mountain” (which Phil Lesh and Bob Weir are known to perform, actually) and “Easy Plateau” feel like sonic rehab – after fucking up so grandly with Rock N Roll, Adams was making his way back to his earlier waters. Take the dark, earthy soul of “Mockingbirdsing.” This is precisely the point where an Adams fan forgives their troubled, whiskey-breathed troubadour.
Having parted with the Cardinals, married Mandy Moore, quit music (and, less than a year later, digitally release a pet heavy metal album), Adams is adrift in uncharted waters. He recently announced the completion of Blackhole, which sounds like a new album.
Only Ryan Adams could quit music, come back with something titled Blackhole (one word), and have legions of idiot fans waiting to greet him with cheers. And groans.