ARTIST RYAN ADAMS
LABEL LOST HIGHWAY/UNIVERSAL
Almost every Ryan Adams review bemoans his lack of quality control, his huge output of songs and his frustrating potential. Every music critic is willing him to make a sequel to Heartbreaker, his beautiful debut solo record, and there was great hope that 29 would be the album to deliver that promise.
29 was written shortly after recovering from a career-threatening wrist injury and recorded without the Cardinals but with long-time producer Ethan Johns at the desk. His seventh solo release finds Ryan in an introspective mood, looking back over his twenties. Nine songs cover nine years treading the usual themes of mortality and unrequited love.
Like most of his releases, Ryan wears his influences on his sleeve. The opener is a rip-off of the Greatful Dead's 'Truckin' and Strawberry Wine sounds like a Neil Young impersonation. But Adams' story telling puts him in a league of his own. 'Elizabeth, You Were Born to Play That Part' is a piano-and-vocals meditation akin to Sylvia Plath on loss, desperation and depression. Over gentle drumming and hushed arpeggios he sings 'Where ever you are/ I hope you're happy now'. Night Birds, perhaps the best track on 29, showcases a mid-twenties crisis. Over morose reverb piano Adams continues 'I feel like a body stuffed into a trunk', and later 'we sink/ into the ocean'. The song closes with unnecessary over-production and swirling reverb to produce the feeling of drowning. It's a little indulgent and typical of an album that almost delivers.
Like the nine wildly different years Adams experienced from twenty, the songs on 29 are too long, over-earnest and overdone, with the hint of a drug induced haze. Yet it delivers what it promises: a catalogue of maturing and getting older, the ups and the downs, the highs and the lows. It is the weakest effort of his three recent releases but still valuable as it shows a different side of the North Carolina troubadour to Cold Roses or Jacksonville City Nights.