Depending on how you look at it, Ryan Adams either got really lucky or really screwed. His sophomore release as a solo artist, Gold, came out on September 11, 2001 with the lead single “New York, New York.” Incidentally, he was posing in front of an American flag on the cover and the video was shot in front of the twin towers on September 7. Naturally, half a million in sales and a Grammy nomination followed, but whether it was because the album was one of the best of the year, or simply a tribute to Adams’s skill as an oracle, is questionable. Adams’s intended official follow-up to Gold, Love is Hell, was shelved, as it was “too depressing” (although it is coming out in the form of two EPs).
So Ryan Adams has been left with a mainstream audience that thinks of him alongside the other September 11 hit-makersAlan Jackson, Toby Keith, etc.and an indie audience that only truly appreciates him for his 2000 debut, Heartbreaker. Is there room for a straight up rock album in Adams’s catalogue? If there isn’t, there should be.
The first line of Rock N Roll could not be any more appropriate. Without a trace of the twang Adams exhibited on Whiskeytown’s records, on Heartbreaker, and to a lesser extent, on Gold, he sings “Let me sing a song for you/That’s never been sung before.” He’s completely correct: this is a new Ryan Adams. Rock N Roll bears absolutely no similarity to Heartbreaker, and only the last vestiges of the swagger of Gold remain. For a man who has been called at times the Dylan or Springsteen of his generation, he has emerged as more of an Elvis Costello, endlessly shape shifting through genres. The guitar work abandons anything acoustic in favor of echoing feedback and overdrive (similar to Adams’s work on protégé Jesse Malin’s stellar The Fine Art of Self Destruction, which Adams produced).
The album’s second track, “Shallow,” exhibits a guitar grind that is instantly reminiscent of Nirvana’s Bleach. In fact, there are several points in the album that sound like straight ahead, un-corporate grunge, with the Pixies element removed. However, it doesn’t feel like Adams was particularly influenced by grunge; he was influenced by what influenced grunge. “1974″ is the first of many really hardcore jams on Rock N Roll, and the way he says “Bloody as the day I was born!/It’s 1974″ can’t help but make you say “Oh yeah!” and bow down to sweet lady rock.
Unfortunately, Adams decides at this point to add to the pantheon of songs called “Wish You Were Here,” but he pulls it off well. The only song on the album written with any of his former band-mates (Brad Rice from the Gold band The Pinkhearts), it is slightly lacking in compelling lyrics with lines like, “It’s totally fucked up/I’m totally fucked up/Wish you were here,” but musically, it’s perfect, and perhaps the most instantly catchy song on Rock N Roll.
Of course, it’s not catchy in a typical beat-you-over-the-head wayAdams is never that direct. In fact, the entire album isn’t especially catchy on first listen, simply because Adams has put the hooks in the most unlikely places. For instance, in the aforementioned “Wish You Were Here,” I continually find myself anticipating the way the word “cars” echoes in the second verse. How often can you say the best part of a song is not just a single word, but the echo of a single word? Similarly, the hook in the title track is so well hidden that I haven’t found it yet, although it is undeniably addictive. It’s just that on Rock N Roll the songs that are instantly likeable are the ones that don’t require so much sorting out.
The album’s first single, “So Alive,” shows Adams really singing for the first time in his career. In the past he’s been content with drawling his words and occasionally entering falsetto for the real emotional stuff. In “So Alive,” Adams sings the entire chorus in falsetto (he sounds like some combination of Morrissey and Jeff Buckley). The end of the song has a piano breakdown where he repeats the chorus “I am on your side/And so alive” in the same falsetto, but the sparse instrumentation makes him sound over the top. The first 10 times I heard this song, I thought it was a mistake. But he’s so into what he is singing that after a while you start going “Damn! This guy is really on my side!”
The most impressive thing about Rock N Roll is the momentum that Adams is able to build. It is absolutely relentless through the first nine tracks. Fortunately, Adams places a nice release point in “Rock N Roll,” where he adopts a more classic pseudo-piano ballad structure as he drawls “Everybody’s cool playing rock n’ roll/I don’t feel cool at all.”
Following is one of Adams’ greatest moments, the supreme “Anybody Wanna Take Me Home.” The sincerity and regret in his voice is almost tangible as he sings, “So, I am in the twilight of my youth/Not that I’m going to remember.” It’s really one of the few glimpses one gets of the old, loveable, sad-bastard Ryan. Not to mention that the song has one of the best melodies Adams has penned. “Anybody Wanna Take Me Home” starts a similar climb in momentum through the final tracks, with only the final chaotic feedback of “The Drugs Not Working” to bring the listener down. Additionally, the final song, in classic Rolling Stones style, seems to completely renounce the theme of Gold, as Goats Head Soup did to its predecessor Exile on Main Street. Gold was named after the beauty of the sunlight reflecting off the buildings in L.A. Adams finishes off Rock N Roll by saying “The drugs ain’t working/Los Angeles is dead.”
Rock N Roll can only be considered a triumph for Adams. I must admit that every time Ryan Adams releases a new album, I get concerned that he won’t be able to pull off another massive stylistic shift. And every time he proves me wrong. Of course, on the first listen to Rock N Roll, one finds himself wondering if this is even a Ryan Adams record. By the second listen, it clearly is, but that wonder is replaced by the whole “what is he doing?” issue. But by the time the third listen rolls around, the questions wash away and one is simply left with the undeniable fact that Rock N Roll is really good. It can only serve to cement Adams as one of the best songwriters around, and to make me question my belief a little less.