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November 11, 2003

More Ryan! New EP brings him back to his roots

Way back in late March, Ryan Adams was set to release the follow-up to 2001's breakthrough hit Gold, tentatively titled Love is Hell. Weeks before release, Adams's label, Lost Highway, pulled the record from release schedules, apparently deeming it "too depressing" and "not his best work." While Adams fans cried foul on the part of the corporate monster, the man himself holed-up in the studio and banged out the excellent Rock N Roll, which was released last Tuesday. Love is Hell, on the other hand, was split into two EPs, the first of which was released alongside the new record last week, part two scheduled for early December.

The pre-release buzz on Love is Hell was that it was the spiritual successor to Adams's masterpiece, 2000's Heartbreaker. Unfortunately, this is not quite the case. While Love is Hell marks a return to what Adams refers to as "sad bastard music," it's a far cry from the sparse, confessional songwriting of Heartbreaker.

Additionally, the material on the first EP is not nearly cohesive enough to warrant such comparisons, sounding more like last year's eclectic Demolition but with far better songs.

The EP opens with the piano-driven ballad "Political Scientist." I never thought that I'd have to say this about Adams, but lyrically the song comes across as heavy-handed and, quite frankly, somewhat ridiculous. Adams is obviously purporting some sort of political agenda when he sings lines like, "What's red, white, and nearly over?," although it never becomes clear exactly what he's trying to say. "Afraid Not Scared" fares a lot better, sticking to the internal strife with which Adams is much better acquainted. The song builds off of an acoustic guitar and gently brushed drums, adding a clean guitar line and a complementary keyboard harmony somewhat reminiscent of Adams's latest obsession, indie A-listers Bright Eyes. "This House is Not For Sale" rocks steadily along like a quieter version of "Nuclear," leading into the title track "Love is Hell," the hardest-rocking number on the record.

If this EP warrants any comparisons to Heartbreaker, it's due to its second half. On a cover of Oasis's hit "Wonderwall," Smiths producer John Porter decides to employ his trademark echo on the vocal track, lending the song a haunted feel.

Adams reworks the guitar line using delicately finger-picked notes, as well as overhauling much of the vocal melody. The end result is that, much like with his live rendition of the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar," the song is completely reinterpreted to brilliant effect. Following this is "The Shadowlands," perhaps the only of these songs which could be mistaken for a Heartbreaker outtake. Over softly pressed keys, Adams whispers, "Most people never find a love," before guitar, strings, and drums come in for the song's finale. "World War 24" sounds like Gold-era Adams at his best, marrying an acoustic backbone with bluesy overlays and a rock tempo. The closer, "Avalanche," sounds like yet another down-tempo piano ballad, until a delayed guitar line sneaks in at the end of the first verse. Nonetheless, the song is a somewhat weak ending to a mostly solid EP.

While Love is Hell Pt. 1 is, for the most part, a collection of good, if slightly predictable, songs from one of rock's most talented songwriters, its lack of a cohesive theme, either musically or lyrically, prevents it from standing among Adams's best work. As much as I hate to admit it, those industry bigwigs were right: based on these eight songs, Love is Hell would probably have made a poor follow-up to Gold. While this is certainly a must-have for Ryan Adams fans, those looking for an introduction would fare better with the real Heartbreaker.