Ryan Adams never seemed built to last. Emerging as the frontman of Whiskeytown in the mid-’90s, Adams immediately gave the impression of a talent too volatile to last. Mercurial early in his career, the North Carolina-born Adams burned through one collaborator after another in Whiskeytown, with only violinist Caitlin Cary remaining at his side. By the release of Pneumonia, Whiskeytown’s elegiac final album, the band itself was history.
As a solo artist, Adams’s personality has often overshadowed his work. Stories of erratic behavior, drug abuse, conflicts with his label, and high-profile romances trailed him through the first half of the ’00s. For years he seemed well on his way to a professional dead end, or worse. That this didn’t happen probably surprises Adams most of all: In 2005 he released 29; an autobiographical title track capped the end of his twenties by chronicling a life of “mystery pills and heroin mixed into cocaine,” and noting “I should’ve died a hundred thousand times.”
Yet, almost a decade on, Ryan Adams remains not just alive and well but a vital artist who sounds newly emboldened on his latest album, the self-titled Ryan Adams, recorded at his custom-made L.A. studio Pax-Am and released by his label of the same name (in conjunction with Blue Note). A few years ago, he probably couldn’t have seen that coming either.
The album comes on the heels of Adams’ stint as the head of The Cardinals, a nimble backing band he led through his most prolific period but disbanded in 2009 after announcing his retirement from music. That same year, Adams married singer/actress Mandy Moore, a relationship both have proven determined to keep as low profile as possible. The marriage stuck; the retirement didn’t. In 2010, Adams released III/IV, a collection of leftover Cardinals-backed recordings, and Orion, a heavy metal concept album with a science fiction theme. Ashes & Fire, a pleasant, folky, water-treading effort, followed in 2011. In his free time, he recorded Vampire Weekend covers for his Facebook followers, because why not?
In an excellent profile at Buzzfeed, writer Bob Mehr depicts Ryan Adams as the product of a period of retrenchment and renewal, recorded after scrapping an Ashes & Fire follow-up made with Glyn Johns, famed producer and father of Adams’ longtime collaborator Ethan Johns, at the cost of $100,000. The portrait that emerges is of a place that’s, in Mehr’s words, “less a traditional recording space than an artistic salon.”
That friends-and-family feel extends to the liner notes, which reveal contributions from pal and Tom Petty keyboard player Benmont Tench and backing vocals from Moore and Johnny Depp, who also plays guitar to one track. (The promotional cycle of Ryan Adams suggests that Adams has a deep, weird Rolodex. The album’s first video co-stars Elvira.) The good vibes pretty much end there, however. Filled with songs about desire, absence, and restlessness, Ryan Adams is far removed from a domestic bliss album along the lines of Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey or Paul and Linda McCartney’s Ram. Whatever peace and contentment Adams has found seldom finds its way into his music.
Adams co-produced the album with Mike Viola (who’s also credited with “all sorts of stuff”), and together they create an unsettled atmosphere that never really resolves itself. Always spare, often forceful, Ryan Adams alternates tough pop songs with tender, unsparing ballads. One of the former, “Gimme Something Good,” opens the album with a power chord-driven song, but Adams makes the sentiment sound more despairing than demanding. “My Wrecking Ball” finds the singer sleepless and adrift, yearning for someone who’s not around, or at least not around him anymore. Adams often tries to distance himself from the country music of his early career, but here the roots still show, both in twangy inflection of his vocals and the rawness of the emotion. It is, to borrow the title of an old Adams record, a heartbreaker.
Artists often release self-titled albums as statement-of-purpose moves as they enter the next phase of their career. Adams has claimed he just couldn’t think of a better title. Yet despite its title, Ryan Adams is far from his definitive album in part because Adams keeps himself hard to define. That’s part of what’s made following his career alternately fascinating and frustrating. Jump aboard with the early alt-country material and you might be puzzled by the ’80s alt-rock homages of Love Is Hell (an album initially deemed too noncommercial to receive a proper release). Fall in love with the garage-y sounds of Rock N Roll and you might get lost in the Grateful Dead-leaning Cold Roses. (This is to say nothing of the many albums Adams has recorded and never released.) Exacerbating both the frustration and the fascination is Adams’ seeming inability to deliver consistently within any given style. He’s a great musician whose discography is short on top-to-bottom great albums.
Maybe consistency doesn’t work that well for Adams, though. Just a month before Ryan Adams’ debut he released 1984, a spirited, 11-tracks-in-15-minutes tribute to ’80s hardcore in general and Hüsker Dü in particular. (Bob Mould’s in that Rolodex, too.) Maybe restlessness is part of his professional strategy, one that doesn’t look like much of a plan at all but has brought him this far anyway, allowing him to amass a remarkable body of work along the way. Looking back, Adams has already gone the distance. The only question is where to go from here.