Despite his radio hit, “New York, New York,” singer-songwriter Ryan Adams is better known for his petulant rants than for his music. This is understandable given that his apparent suffering—responsible for tirades aimed at critics and audiences alike—doesn’t always translate to his recordings, which can be startlingly derivative and emotionally flat. But when Adams is good (as on “New York, New York,” a song that served as a balm in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center), he’s golden.
Jacksonville City Nights and 29 are the latest in a trio of recordings that Adams will release this year. Though the pair occasionally suffer from tedious and plagiaristic moments, they also show a gifted artist whose emotional rawness is finally empowering his work rather than undermining it.
Of the two albums, Jacksonville is the more focused. As with Cold Roses from earlier this year, Adams’ backing band, The Cardinals, accompany him on the record. On songs like “Hard Way to Fall,” he’s restrained and earnest, avoiding the screechy vocal tics that have detracted from his previous work—as well as from this album’s de facto title track, “The End.” Adams’ self-control ultimately sells the record. On “Dear John,” for instance, he’s content to sing a ragged harmony that provides a nice counterpoint for the refinement of his duet partner, Norah Jones. For the most part, Adams avoids histrionics and lets Jacksonville’s restrained cadences and well-crafted lyrics do the work. There’s no mistaking echoes of The Band and Harvest-era Neil Young here, but these influences serve as touchstones and don’t overwhelm the record.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the title track from 29, which opens the album. The song’s loping shuffle and rushed lyrics are so close to the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’ ” that they all but qualify as a cover version, and the way that Adams and his group riff on Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again” during the outro doesn’t help matters. In rock ’n’ roll, it’s OK to steal from the best, but Adams should remember not to steal from the signature hits of the best.
From here, however, 29 is a subdued yet powerful work. Produced by Ethan Johns (who worked on Adams’ first two solo records, Heartbreaker and Gold), the album features hushed instrumentation, spacey feedback and strings. Songs like “Blue Sky Blues” are essentially vocal-and-guitar (or piano) demos until subtle overdubs grab the listener’s attention. In the case of “Blue Sky Blues,” that service is provided by horns that sound both festive and melancholy. Fortunately, there’s no sense that Adams is re-creating whatever he’d been listening to on his iPod that day. Instead, the record has a timeless feel that, without sounding derivative, transports the listener to unassociated locales, from the Antebellum South to downtown Manhattan to the Mexican border.
Given his tortured muse, it’s unlikely that Adams’ records will ever be consistent. His live shows, too, likely will always run from transcendent to trash, veering off course and recentering themselves as he struggles to balance his frustrations with his desire to connect with an audience. It may be painful to watch at times, but this year anyway, Adams’ prodigious output proves that it’s worth enduring a few impulsive miscues to feel that connection.