In an interview with The New York Times, Ryan Adams explains that his self-titled LP is not the album he initially intended to release, but rather his answer to making a record deemed “too sad” by Capitol Records after he presented an effort to cope with the loss of his grandmother. For a prolific singer-songwriter like Adams, one who recently released a surprise punk album (1984), one who has shared a concept metal album (Orion), and one whose albums have juked from essential (Heartbreaker) to avoidable (Rock n Roll), the idea of him holding back a release due to it being too sad is surprising to say the least.
It has also allowed Adams to make one of the most comforting, mature, and fully realized albums of his career.
Confidence permeates Ryan Adams with every chug of the electric guitar that rides through the album. It feels miles away from the acoustic balladry presented on 2011’s Ashes & Fire and the tear-in-your-beer concept that
Capitol Records apparently rejected Adams shelved after the icy reaction from Capitol Records. With this in mind, closer “Let Go” could hold the best clues for an entry point into understanding what exactly Ryan Adams means to both its audience and its creator.
“Cross your fingers behind your back and lie to me,” Adams sings on “Let Go” before adding, “Tell me it’s OK and you’ll fix everything/ ‘Cuz I let go.” Following an album that seems to try to make light of dark times, to look at the glass half-full in knowing optimism — the optimism of someone who has seen how difficult the world can be and come out, successfully, on the other side with his life and happiness intact — these lines can be seen to represent the record as a whole. Is Adams lying to us by presenting Ryan Adams as an alternate album from the one he intended to release? Are his fingers crossed behind his back by deciding to deliver a rock album instead of the more reflective singer-songwriter material we’ve grown to expect in recent years?
There are two sides to every coin, as the idiom goes, and thinking that the more positive nature of this release makes it dishonest is a narrow way to approach it. Rather, Ryan Adams can be seen as an emotionally mature take from an artist who is able to think in terms of career, able to look beyond selfish reasons for creating art, and able to give fans something that can be both pleasant to listen to and enjoyable to perform on a nightly basis. And Adams is able to accomplish this while still sneaking in emotionally resonant nuggets.
Most of these treasures come during the record’s flip side. The haunting, less predictably structured “Shadows”, with its metronome-steady snare smacks and reverb-overdrive guitar strums, highlights the quandary “How long do I have here with you?” The snare slaps continue at a quicker pace on “Feels Like Fire” when Adams declares, “Just so you know, you will always be the hardest thing I will let go.” The back-to-back numbers settle on similar themes but through quite different lenses and ways of presenting intensity. The palm-muted “I Just Might” completes a pretty flawless three-song desperation run with what could be an homage to Springsteen’s “State Trooper”. In fact, though the album rarely recalls Nebraska sonically, the self-produced, DIY nature of Adams’ work makes the Springsteen classic a reasonable comparison.
Besides the blues strut of “Gimme Something Good”, the front side of Ryan Adams isn’t as strong as the back half. That first single, though, could be a mantra for Adams at this stage of his recording career. “I was playing dead, and didn’t make a sound/ Holding my breath and going underground,” Adams claims on the album kickoff, adding in the chorus that he “holds everything in life like it was broken,” before asking for “something good.” Knowing what we know about Adams’ sobriety, his happy marriage, his pets, his studio, and his increasingly amazing live performances, this request for “something good” seems to have been answered, and the request is made more to himself than to the world. Adams’ newfound peace comes from allowing himself happiness. Anyone who wrestles with similar demons could learn something from this song and from Adams’ personal story in general.
Though the overall sound of Ryan Adams may be a mask, hiding lyrics that are every bit as heartbroken, confused, lost, and struggling as ever, with those metaphorical fingers crossed behind his back, the gift that Adams has given fans disguised as a Steve Earle or John Hiatt record isn’t hard to extrapolate from an otherwise uncool recording style. As Earle, Hiatt, and many others have proven in the past, rock and roll faithfulness isn’t necessarily antiquated, especially in the hands of a captivating songwriter like Ryan Adams. The result is an honest record disguised as a lie, a personal release that can be mistaken for a retreat, an essential album passed off as the alternate take for the one he really wanted to make.
Essential Tracks: “Gimme Something Good”, “Feels Like Fire”, “I Just Might”, and “Let Go”