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Ranking the Album: Ryan Adams & The Cardinals’ Cold Roses

A return to nature to sort through and celebrate 10 years of Cold Roses

Ryan Adams
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    Ranking the Album is a feature in which we take an iconic or beloved record and dare to play favorites. It’s a testament to the fact that classic album or not, there are still some tracks we root for more than others to pop up in our shuffles. Today, in honor of it recently turning 10, we rank the tracks of Ryan Adams & The Cardinals’ sprawling double LP, Cold Roses, from worst to best.

    When Senior Editor Matt Melis asked me to rank Cold Roses, I was a little hesitant about the idea. This is one of my favorite records of all time, and like any record worth its weight in vinyl, it functions best when listened to front to back as a complete work. But the more I thought about the proposal, the more it excited me. I had already written extensively about the album back in 2011, so why not tackle it in a more lighthearted fashion? Also, weighing the songs individually against one another revealed some patterns in Cold Roses that I had never noticed before, most notably the idea of nature serving as the connective tissue of romance and spirituality (we’ll talk a lot more about that in a bit).

    Thinking back on Cold Roses’ release in 2005, it was heralded as a twangy return to form for Adams, who had flirted with mainstream success on Gold, balked at record execs with the exhaustively depressing Love Is Hell, then given them the finger with the more “radio friendly” Rock n Roll. Although I personally love the latter two records, music critics weren’t wrong when they called Cold Roses Adams’ best work since his 2000 solo debut, Heartbreaker. But as time has passed, I’ve realized its validity goes beyond it just being catchier and more country. It’s become special to me for some very specific reasons that I’ll get into, just like I’m sure it’s become special to others for completely different reasons. As a result, my ranking is proudly biased. And now, I ask you a very important question: What’s your ranking? Let us know in the comments.

    Dan Caffrey
    Senior Staff Writer

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    18. NOW THAT YOU’RE GONE

    Disc Number: 1

    Track Number: 6

    Like pretty much every Ryan Adams record, a lot of Cold Roses is about being left by a loved one. But where most of the tracks filter that through a pastoral Carolina setting, “Now That You’re Gone” has a lonesomeness that’s pretty bland by Adams’ standards. It’s also the slowest song on the album, which doesn’t help. Purdy? Yes. Essential? No.

    Audubon Society (mentions of plants and animals): Surprisingly, none — a trait that only adds to the lack of lyrical specificity.

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    Written in a Language That Was Meant to Fuck You Up (saddest lyric): “I’m alone and I’m dancin’/ With you now in your old room/ But there’s nobody there”

    17. LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL

    Disc Number: 2

    Track Number: 8

    As much as I appreciate Cold Roses’ late-in-the-game Hail Mary of optimism, Adams gets more than a bit clunky with his constant stream of positive metaphors: “You build a house, and if the house comes up/ You gotta work on that house/ If you want to make it your home” isn’t just redundant — it sounds like a Home Depot commercial.

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    Audubon Society: A sole metaphorical rose

    …A Language That Was Meant to Fuck You Up: “‘Cause if I don’t believe in love/ Then I don’t believe in you/ And I do” works so well because it makes you think it’s going to bring the waterworks. Then at the last second, it takes a turn for the uplifting.

    16. BLOSSOM

    Disc Number: 2

    Track Number: 7

    My reason for ranking “Blossom” so low is subjective, but hey, so is this entire list. Ever since Strand of Oaks put out a similar-sounding song last year, the two blend together in a way that’s maddening to me. To be fair, they’re both great tunes in their own right, and Adams released his long before Timothy Showalter did. But when you’re ranking every song on a record you love, you have to turn to some pretty strange justifications.

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    Audubon Society: Outside of the title, we get Wildwood trees and a hurricane rose. I’m not sure if those are actual plants, but they sure sound nice.

    …A Language That Was Meant to Fuck You Up: “Without anyone to hold you/ What will you blossom into?/ Without anyone to hold you/ How will you grow?”

    15. ROSEBUD

    Disc Number: 2

    Track Number: 3

    Even though it works perfectly well as a broken love song, any hardcore Ryan Adams fan knows that “This House Is Not for Sale” is probably about the two ghosts from Beetlejuice. I once thought Adams was pulling a similar lyrical trick with “Rosebud” and referencing the sleigh of the same name from Citizen Kane. Upon closer inspection, he’s not, and I feel stupid, so I’m ranking it at number 15.

    Audubon Society: There’s the title, but that seems to reference a woman, not a plant. Outside of that, there’s a “field of trees and roses singing those melodies.” Adams really loves his roses on this album, which I guess makes sense given the title and The Cardinals’ logo.

    14. BEAUTIFUL SORTA

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    Disc Number: 1

    Track Number: 5

    In which Ryan Adams kicks shit. Many of his albums have a song like this, one that’s half joking and could easily be played in a honky-tonk joint with chain link separating the crowd from the band. I love this kind of faux bar fight demeanor, especially when Adams tells someone to get him a “beeeeer” in the beginning. But once again, if I have to rank 18 great songs, I’m going to get nitty-gritty, and the tongue-in-cheek yee-hawing of “Beautiful Sorta” somewhat breaks up the melancholic flow of disc one.

    Audubon Society: “A jar full of lightning bugs,” which, in true Adams fashion, sounds way cooler than “a jar full of fireflies”

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    …A Language That Was Meant to Fuck You Up: “Wasted like a bum with somebody’s wallet/ Pictures inside of you and me/ You and I so far past sad, I’m crazy and scary”

    13. SWEET ILLUSIONS

    Disc Number: 1

    Track Number: 2

    Fantastic and heartbreaking as it is, “Sweet Illusions” comes right after what may be the best opener in Ryan Adams’ career, “Magnolia Mountain” (we’ll get to it soon). So it always feels like a beautiful (sorta) comedown rather than a grand slam.

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    Audubon Society: Some singing birds

    …A Language That Was Meant to Fuck You Up: “You and I used to shine like a jewel/ But time’s been nothing to us but cruel”

    12. Easy Plateau

    Disc Number: 2

    Track Number: 1

    Many critics hailed Cold Roses as Adams’ Deadhead album when it came out, and seeing as I’ve never been a Deadhead myself, I sometimes wonder why I love it so much. Still, I can definitely detect Jerry Garcia’s influence on “Easy Plateau”, the album’s most rambling song and one that should switch places with “Let It Ride” in the track listing. The latter would make a much better opener to disc two.

    Audubon Society: A whole lotta orange groves. And cats!

    …A Language That Was Meant to Fuck You Up: “How do I hold on to you/ If I can’t hold on to me?”

    11. WHEN WILL YOU COME BACK HOME

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    Disc Number: 1

    Track Number: 4

    Something about the AM Gold guitar tone of the intro reminds me of Adams’ Carolina brethren (by way of Boston) James Taylor, and that’s not a bad thing. It makes the heartbreak go down easier.

    Audubon Society: Ryan gets lost in the woods — metaphorically, of course.

    …A Language That Was Meant to Fuck You Up: “And I’m not gonna break, but if I do/ I’m gonna shatter like the glass I turned your heart into/ I’m broken like the windows in the house where I used to live”

    10. FRIENDS

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    Disc Number: 2

    Track Number: 9

    No, of course I don’t play this song in my head whenever I think of friends I’ve grown apart from since college. And no, I never caught one of them singing this song to themselves at a party when we were still hanging out. So no, this song isn’t bittersweetly sentimental to me in any way whatsoever. Sorry, I need a moment…

    Hey, I’m back! Now imagine if this had been the opening theme to Friends. Wouldn’t that be funny?

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    Audubon Society: No plants or animals, but there’s still plenty of nature to be found: a breeze, being on a boat, and even Christmas on a river.

    …A Language That Was Meant to Fuck You Up: “And when you look at me/ You remind me that someday it’s gonna end/ And when you pass on/ God, I bet you miss your friends”

    9. COLD ROSES

    Disc Number: 2

    Track Number: 4

    Musically, Cold Roses’ title track doesn’t have as much quiet beauty as the rest of the album, but it does have some of Adams’ most wonderfully trippy lyrics to date, adding a touch of the metaphysical to what’s essentially a standard hangover. “Mirrors in the room go black and blue.” Can’t say I’ve been there after a long night of partying, but with any luck, I will someday.

    Audubon Society: Some roses that are cold

    …A Language That Was Meant to Fuck You Up: “Nothing but the sunlight will help you grow/ From underneath your bed you can’t see the window” isn’t very weepy, but it’s as weepy as this song gets — which is to say, not very weepy at all.

    8. DANCE ALL NIGHT

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    Disc Number: 2

    Track Number: 6

    I originally had “Dance All Night” much lower on the list, but then that harmonica solo started…

    Audubon Society: Nada, surprisingly

    …A Language That Was Meant to Fuck You Up: This song stands out on Cold Roses for its unabashed sunniness. It’s really just about the simple joy of dancing to make yourself feel better, so let’s switch it up and pick the brightest lyric: “I ain’t lonely now/ Yeah, I got someone I love/ Someone I think about/ Someone for me to take care of”

    7. MEADOWLAKE STREET

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    Disc Number: 1

    Track Number: 3

    Ryan Adams isn’t exactly known for switching gears midway through a song, which is why “Meadowlake Street” is so special. Across its four-and-a-half minutes, he jumps from acoustic yearning to a chorus that’s almost post-punk (if the genre were coated in barnyard molasses), then a bridge that balloons and balloons with a snare roll, synth, and trumpet line until it explodes back into the verse. Phew. Oh, and the falsetto harmony of “boats out on the hor-i-zon” always cracks my friends and me up for some reason.

    Audubon Society: A maple tree becomes the central image of the song — first carved with Adams and his gal’s initials, then chopped down and turned into a boat. He names it after her, naturally.

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    …A Language That Was Meant to Fuck You Up: “I feel like a dream that’s not worth having/ Like a nervous joke/ Ain’t nobody laughing/ Like somebody with nothing ’cause they don’t know what they’re wanting”

    6. IF I AM A STRANGER

    Disc Number: 2

    Track Number: 5

    To truly understand the greatness of “If I Am a Stranger”, you have to listen to the slowed-down acoustic version from Adams’ 2007 Follow the Lights EP. It adds a touch of doubt to his romantic promises, making it his true “Wonderwall” — the one he actually wrote.

    Audubon Society: Nuffink

    …A Language That Was Meant to Fuck You Up: “If all this love is real, how will we know?/ And if we’re only scared of losing it, how will it last?”

    5. LET IT RIDE

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    Disc Number: 2

    Track Number: 2

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: “This House Is Not for Sale” should have opened part one of Love Is Hell, and “Let It Ride” should have opened disc two of Cold Roses. In addition to it being one of the only songs on the album to center on Adams himself rather than Adams the (often ex) Boyfriend, it gives us a rollicking travelogue through Tennessee and North Carolina. Also, it’s a much needed boost of energy after the spirit-crippling blackness of disc-one closer “How Do You Keep Love Alive”.

    Audubon Society: Let’s talk about the places instead of the flowers and birdies: Adams takes us to the Cumberland River, the Delta Queen steamboat, a ferry boat, a 4 a.m. bar, and a drive-in theater.

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    …A Language That Was Meant to Fuck You Up: “Tennessee’s a brother to my sister Carolina/ Where they gonna bury me?”

    4. MAGNOLIA MOUNTAIN

    Disc Number: 1

    Track Number: 1

    The best songs on Cold Roses all share a very specific trait: connecting nature with love, of both the romantic, familial, and spiritual sort. Just look at the record’s opening verse:

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    “I want to go to Magnolia Mountain/ And lay my weary head down/ Down on the rocks on the mountain my savior made/ Steady my soul and ease my worry/ Hold me when I rattle like a hummingbird hummin’/ Tie me to the rocks on the mountain my savior made”

    God, the rocks, the narrator, the narrator’s loved one, and the hummingbird the narrator compares her to are all part of the same cycle. In the wrong hands, this could be cloying and overly reminiscent of The Lion King, but when filtered through the soft rainstorm of Adams, J.P. Bowersock, and Cindy Cashdollar’s guitars, it all comes out gorgeous.

    Audubon Society: A bluebird, roses in someone’s yard, cotton fields, and the aforementioned hummingbird

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    …A Language That Was Meant to Fuck You Up: “We burned the cotton fields down in the valley/ and ended up with nothing but scars/ The scars became the lessons that we gave to our children/ after the war”

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