Album Review: Ryan Adams & The Cardinals – Cardinals III/IV


This year could have gone down as the year Ryan Adams went metal. Instead, thanks to a mid-December Hail Mary, 2010 will go down as the year the rocker released the eagerly-anticipated Cardinals III/IV. A relic from the same sessions that gave us 2007’s Easy Tiger, Adams’ fifth album with The Cardinals yields a two-disc effort made up of everything we love about Adams and a few hints on where he’s going next.

Disc one is, quite succinctly, nearly perfect and a mesmerizing culmination, with little filler and each song seemingly striking at the same familiar, comfortable chords that Adams and company rose to notoriety with. Post-breakup sorrow appears to dominate the emotional narrative throughout disc one, as demonstrated in “Dear Candy” and “Kisses Start Wars”. That first track is a synthesis of the kind of minimalist, driving guitar line common in any Tom Petty release, while the vocal delivery and pain is something only a student of Neil Young could deliver. As a relationship crumbles, Adams reveals that the whole thing never meant anything, fighting back his own pained howling. Decidedly more composed and cerebral, “Kisses Start Wars” is one of the more direct examples of Adams’ obsession with The Strokes, a fascination he only halfheartedly expressed on Rock N Roll. More Young-ian vocals couple sweetly with a danceable rock groove, full of lighter, breezier guitars when Adams’ high-pitched vocals stifle that burning pain in his guts.

Adams is his gloriously self-deprecating self in “Happy Birthday”. With effervescent, melodious guitar and baseline synth tacked on top of a fairly sullen and downbeat rhythm, Adams paints a pathetic picture of himself: the concerned ex-lover trying to not be concerned, dressing his worries up in wonderfully-bad pop lyricism. “Happy Birthday, I’m your birthday cake/and I’m lit/and I’m late/and I’m tired/You tried to escape/I wanna fight/But I’m tired…,” he sings.  Adams stretches his wings closer to the folk end of his sound with “Crystal Skull”. Now using a lonesome acoustic guitar and a whiskey-soaked pedal-steel, he tells of a place he and his lady love go, a place where he knows she’ll disappoint him, yet he can’t avoiding heading to every night. While these tracks are clear stand-outs, each and any track of disc one could readily tell the same story: Adams is back doing what he does best; and, oh boy, does he do it brilliantly.

Shifting gears, disc two isn’t quite as easy-going; less immediate in its appeal. At its most basic, disc two finds its true worth in tracks like “P.S.”, which take the anguish of the first disc and give it a slightly more upbeat rock treatment.  More Strokes-ian ditties like “My Favorite Song” show up as well. “Icebreaker” feels like Adams re-tackling his metal phase, only this time with more of his own well-honed sensibilities. Here, he makes a big jam track that features angelic female backing vocals and the kind of heavy swagger much of the first disc completely misses out on. “Star Wars” is a fraud, something that starts out like any Adams love song/ballad–infused with more of that mainline New York guitar rock vibe–before morphing into an ambient, guitar-driven guitar barrage. With Adams wailing away Star Wars references, the rest of the track mutates an initially sweet attempt to woo a beautiful girl into Adams’ uniquely geek-ish mating call.

All that’s nothing, however, compared to the disc’s opus, “Kill The Lights”. At nearly eight minutes, it’s the closest thing to being metal without the weird concept. A bizarre experience powered by an especially feisty Adams, minutes of jangly rock fury melt into an exploration of guitar and open air that further degrade into… nothing. Silence, though, is deceiving as Adams ends the cut on a high-note of rebellious energy. The appeal on disc two, especially on the set’s final two tracks, seems to be rooted in their near-absurdity, as opposed to the joyous simplicity of the preceding group of songs. It’s clear that Adams spends a lot of time in the studio growing and expanding, which can only be good, but one still has to wonder the merit of being exceedingly odd when reputation is unique and experimental enough.

Regardless of what it will be known for, 2010 was a good year for Ryan Adams fans. With music from the nerdy recesses of his mind, to a triumphant release that happily displays some of his more off-center offerings, Adams continues to be a presence in music, this year and beyond.