Certainly it recklessly describes an almost imperceptible line between brattish, self-pitying, petulant whining and glorious, full throttle, destroyed rock 'n' roll, and teeters over the wrong side of that divide too often to be called any kind of classic. Many of its 15 tracks are low on redeeming features, for example the Status Quo chug of "Shallow", "1974"'s gauche attempt to mythologise the moment of his birth into a Stonesy crossfire hurricane and the energy vampire nihilism of "Wish You Were Here" ("It's all a bunch of shit it's totally fucked up" etc. etc.) and "Note To Self: Don't Die".
Counterbalancing all that, however, are a slew of damaged classics. The single "So Alive" is one such shining moment, blessed with an immediate, propulsive melody and simple but effective lyrics. The title track is a reflective piano piece which, for all the white noise squall that surrounds it, finds Adams at, or at least playing, his most vulnerable ("I don't feel cool at all/Send all of my best out to the band/I don't think I'll make it out to the show/There's this girl I can't get out of my head") and sounds like something Aphex Twin might have churned out of one of the mysterious mechanical machines he synthesised on "Drukqs". "Anybody Wanna Take Me Home" simultaneously yearns and soars - just how does he do that, anyway? - although the fade out/fade in at the end stopped being radical round about side three of "The Beatles". "Boys" is a high velocity bottle rocket of a song - too fast for love, indeed - all flash surface but driven by a burning emptiness at its core. "The Drugs Not Working" is initially unpromising, with its shabby near-secondhand title and early lines that suggest it's yet another song about junkies and hookers, but the boy wonder deftly deconstructs those preconceptions ("I know it's cliché/But then so was her life, I mean, she lived in L.A.") before steering a course towards a gloriously elegiac synth-soaked coda. (It's still a struggle to choke back the suspicion that Sting has been recruited for backing vocal duty towards the end, though.)
"Rock N Roll" might not conspicuously be a classic in the manner of "Gold" - there's too much that's questionable or just plain disagreeable about it for that. But, even in its most turgid moments, it courses and burns with ferocity and energy, a swampy swagger that makes it a compelling listen. It's an album so vital and, yes, alive, even as it wanders through the negativelands, that it can be forgiven a great deal. "You're doomed to repeat the past", yells Adams at one point. Not doing so may yet prove to be the key to his salvation.
RYAN ADAMS & THE CARDINALS Cold Roses (Lost Highway)
This double album is the first of three projected Ryan Adams releases this year, something that suggests Wonderboy really ought to consider tightening up his notoriously slack editing skills. Just about the best that can be said about Cold Roses is that it successfully evokes the feel of his masterpiece Gold, although unfortunately without being anywhere near as compelling.
Opener Magnolia Mountain is as fine as the album gets, all wistful, crackling Americana and wailing pedal steel, but even this sounds like a facsimile of his finest work. There are isolated moments that attain the same standard, but invariably these are fragments rather than entire songs the plaintive cry of I aint got nothin but love for you that towers over the rest of Sweet Illusions, for example, or the swampy sweetness of Life Is Beautifuls chorus.
On his current diluted form the simple, mostly solo and acoustic Meadowlake Street becomes a flabby and undisciplined mess as it twists and writhes in a vain attempt to disguise how lost its become. The cumbersome construction of the line No one leaves the lights on in a house where nobody lives anymore is mirrored in the top-heavy toppling melody it finds itself shackled to on When Will You Come Back Home, the sound of desperate work and rework rather than free-flowing inspiration. He might open Beautiful Sorta with a rallying call ripped off the New York Dolls but it cant raise the song above the level of a lightweight country glam thrash. Cherry Lane is cheapened by the way Adams slides yodelling into the song and the shockingly obvious breaking glass sound effect behind the line The glass it hits the floor, but like many of the songs assembled here its a diffuse, fidgety thing without enough substance to make it worth chewing over. The rich, spacious sound renders the meshing acoustic and electric guitars of Mockingbird gloriously, but cant do anything about the quality of Adams songwriting, here second-rate at best. Still, the aching regret behind How Do You Keep Love Alive lifts it above the morass, as such naked emotional honesty often does. Similarly, the keening chorus of Tonight is haunted by need; it could be a softened outtake from Rock N Roll, suggesting that Ryans at his best when hes hungry. As for the title track - what exactly is a cold rose anyway? Do roses have a preferred temperature? its a gentle Stones/Neil Young ramble, the latter evoked in particular by some abrasive guitar textures, that, like so much of the album, fails to amount to anything special.
Tom Schick, racking up only his third production credit here, delivers lucid sonics, and a fine 180 gram audiophile vinyl pressing makes the most of them. The elaborate embossed sleeve is a nice touch, although the packaging omits the printed lyrics found within the CD issue, and the inner gatefold illustration looks as though it might be more at home on a Trick Of The Tail-era Genesis album. The lyric from Rosebud Dont know what Im singing about and I dont know what for neatly summarises the albums diffident air. As a sub-80 minute alt.country 19 track work obstinately packaged as a double CD, Cold Roses superficially shares many surface qualities with Wilcos Being There, but compared with that glorious work it merely sounds dashed off.
RYAN ADAMS The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 20 February 2006
Only my second visit to The Bridgewater (but first of many in prospect this year; Im finally making good on a new years resolution for once), theres plenty of opportunity to marvel at its architectural fabulousity and star-spangled ceiling as the alt.country boy wonder keeps us waiting nearly half an hour past the advertised showtime. Solo in concert, says the ticket, and the stage is appropriately sparse, dressed with a grand piano thats larger than my car, a couple of guitars and a snare drum, the only electrified instrumentation being a flickering candelabra.
To a heros homecoming Adams finally shuffles on stage, clutching a red notebook and what looks like the booklet from the vinyl edition of Bob Dylans Live 1966 an album which, lets not forget, documents a famously confrontational evening in Mancunian music history which he props up front cover outward, displaying the black and white portrait of the singer in a pose halfway between orchestra conductor and Charles Atlas. For the next hour he flits nervously between piano, guitar and glasses of red wine, pulling out the undocumented and unheard from between myopic squints at that notebook (on several occasions he profanely laments the loss of his glasses) and serving them up in the belief that theyre searing chunks of truth plucked from his own bleeding soul. Given that Adams is the kind of performer who could and indeed is, tonight be applauded for blowing his nose its hardly surprising that his self-editing abilities not his own best friend on record become a little cloudy at times tonight. Initially mute between songs, Ryan soon relaxes to the point of twitching nervousness, the songs seemingly punctuating his digressions rather than vice versa, a handful of hecklers vainly attempting to chivvy him along a bit. And those songs, almost uniformly dark and maudlin when one is announced, to general amusement, as Everything Dies, he has to reassure the audience that no, its not a joke, thats really what its called are half-written and hard going. Remember how the advance publicity for the postponed Love Is Hell rumoured it to be dark and depressing, and contrary to his labels requirements for another chunky collection of classic country-rock? And how, when it arrived, it was actually a Jeff Buckley-esque delight? Well, the songs he plays tonight are a far better fit to that initial description, yet they also sound like he lashed them together in the bus on his way to the gig, even though some have long-standing pedigree what he calls Drunk And Fucked Up Like The Twilight has been knocking around for a decade. Its only at the close of the first set, wheeling out Cardinals drummer Brad Pemberton and donning an electric guitar to the predictable but still amusing heckle of Judas! that he finally plays something I recognise: Magnolia Mountain, standout by country mile on last years Cold Roses album. Astonishingly rearranged in a White Stripes stylee, like the Detroit duo the pair conjure a whole orchestra of cacophony from just six strings and a snare, a flash of a genius that, like the candelabra, flickers all too fitfully tonight.
A second set dangles a few more concessionary carrots including La Cinega Just Smiled and Where The Stars Go Blue from his monumental Gold, the album that, history might conclude, steered him towards the middle of the road but even these are cankered by clowning and tomfoolery. Reasonably driven and faithful versions of A Kiss Before I Go and especially a near vitriolic The End were satisfying, but his minor-key version of Wonderwall collapses in an incoherent rant against modern bands who sound like The Clash playing too fast, and couple of tantalising teases of the intro to I See Monsters come to nought. Fearlessly busting through the curfew which, if hed actually bothered to show up on time, wouldnt have been such a focus of misguided rebellion for him Pemberton is recalled to the stage and the duo crash through The Grateful Deads Wharf Rat, which Ryan dedicates to Phil Lesh.
A few songs into the evening it suddenly strikes how Ryan Adams is, the man himself excepted, the closest thing to Neil Young we have left. Its all there in the country-rock cantankerousness, the wilful disregard for fans, status, image and catalogue and the thrift store wardrobe. Two hours later Adams appear more like an alt.country Peter Pan, a boy who refuses to grow up, a whining, petulant attention vampire whose incessant between-song mutterings function like a directors commentary on his own decline. Yes., there are undisputedly moments of greatness between the desperate flailing, but, as with his records, it seems a lot to ask of your audience to get them to do your editing for you.
RYAN ADAMS & THE CARDINALS Jacksonville City Nights (Lost Highway)
The second instalment of Ryan Adams 2005 trilogy is more obviously countrified than its predecessor, Cold Roses. That much is immediately apparent from opener A Kiss Before I Go, which, saturated with weeping steel guitar, is about as close to traditional country music as Ive heard him pass. As with My Heart Is Broken, which adds some sighing strings to the mix, the weak point is, surprisingly, Adams vocal performance, sounding insubstantial and insufficiently weatherbeaten at the centre of all this Nashville window dressing. Hes no Gram Parsons, as much as he might aspire to the late greats mantle.
Rather better are the smaller ensemble pieces that form the bulk of Jacksonville City Nights, which form a closer fit with his talents. The End might be the albums highlight, even though it reads like a monstrous pile-up of country clichés jukebox, cotton fields, diner, bar etc. He sounds affecting rather than affected, a rare occurrence amidst the morass of half-formed ideas from which it seems his albums must be shaped these days, and when he yells the title repeatedly at its close its a genuinely rending moment.
The album also impresses more consistently when Adams has an external focus for his writing, rather than the weighty introspection that sometimes sinks his work. Dear John is half-brilliant, half-banal, a broken song of bereavement, both memorable and clumsy how much better could it have been had he bothered to finesse it properly to a finished form? September charts an episodic course from a bad prognosis to an early gravestone; mournful and moving, it cuts right through the tortured genius posturing. Another confrontation of mortality, Pa is hardly Hardly Getting Over It, but, slow and hushed like a passing ghost, it impresses but quietly.
Games is a sliver of a song, simultaneously fully worked-up and still in development, although whats there is admittedly evocative, if incomplete. Silver Bullets is almost like an alt-country reflection of the most sombre moments of Big Stars Third/Sister Lovers. The instrumental motif of Peaceful Valley has been hooked in my head for weeks in isolation from Adams unkempt, borderline yodelled vocal, the subtraction of which makes for an eerier thing altogether, like Godspeed You Black Emperor! gone country n eastern.
Just about the last thing you need in a year thats already birthed three Ryan Adams albums is for one of them to sprout extra tracks, but the vinyl version of Jacksonville City Nights has a whole side of them. Theres a raggedy, fuzzier but hardly skeletal demo of A Kiss Before I Go; new song Jeane definitely betters some of the content of the main feature. A coupla covers include a sparse and reticent, thin and silvery version of Johnny Cashs I Still Miss Someone, and an elaborate and winding Always On My Mind. What price a whole album of covers (that isnt a cover of a whole Strokes album)?
Certainly a better work than the scattershot Cold Roses, theres half a genuinely powerful album but, as ever in desperate need of an editor, Ryan makes the listener work hard to get to it.
RYAN ADAMS 29 (Lost Highway)
The final instalment of the trilogy of albums released by Ryan Adams during 2005 also happens to be the best. 29 is ostensibly a loosely-themed concept album of sorts, with a song representing every year of the artists third decade (although wouldnt that mean it would have ten tracks, rather than the nine presented here?)
Nevertheless, youve got to get past opener Twenty Nine, which has the scythes out straight away: its The Grateful Deads Truckin, except longer, more ponderous and nowhere near as good. Way to go, Wonderboy! But after this drastic initial disappointment, 29 soon settles into its comfort zone. The gentle acoustic waltz Strawberry Wine sharpens the focus of the two albums he released with The Cardinals, and although theres definitely a whole chunk of Neil Young about it, theres at least as much of himself in there too. Still, the weariness that surrounds the lines Dont spend so much time on the other side/Let the daylight in suggests that hes yet to adopt his own advice as an ideal for living.
The maudlin piano and pattering percussion of Nightbirds set up a mood worth sustaining, its jazz-tinged, alcohol-soaked melancholia being pleasantly reminiscent of Mark Eitzels mighty, and almost universally ignored, debut solo album 60 Watt Silver Lining. The sparse sonics of Blue Sky Blues belie the care and attention enfolded into the production, in particular the pillows of atmospheric effects secreted in the mix and the solidity of Ryans vocals.
The rambling narrative of Carolina Rain underwent clarification between page and stage if the differences between the printed and sung lyrics are anything to go by, but it still feels as though much important detail has been deliberately obscured. Its no Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts, but itll do. Its certainly ahead of Starlite Diner, which spends its allotted duration sobbing into its cups, and the jarring, flamenco-flavoured, Orbison-esque The Sadness, which appears to have wandered in from another album entirely. Elizabeth, You Were Born To Play That Part is some compensation, navigating from piano ballad to a slowly unwinding Red House Painters-esque instrumental.
Despite reuniting with producer Ethan Johns, the team that brought you Gold dont strike it a second time with 29, and the shadow overhanging that opening track mocks any claims that Adams might have (re)gained his true voice here. But its still the most satisfying long-player hes released since Love Is Hell, even if its a lesser work than the best 45 minutes of his 2005 trilogy might have made. Still, given that we have the tools to reconfigure last years body of work to reflect our personal preferences, that might be the best way to deal with Adams recent prolificacy.
RYAN ADAMS / JESSE MALIN The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 23 June 2011
Walking onstage to the strains of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy In New York”, Jesse Malin times his entrance perfectly to coincide with the “Here I am” line. (It’s not the only reference to the duo made he makes this evening; during his most S&G-esque tune “Riding On The Subway” he swaps the phrase “Underneath the El” for “Mrs Robinson”.) It’s a bold move, but this is one of the most partisan audiences a support act could wish for: Malin and Adams have been friends for years, the latter producing the former’s superb solo debut “The Fine Art Of Self Destruction” and the duo collaborating pseudonymously as punk rock band The Finger. It’s this almost-guaranteed good reception that emboldens Malin to preface his songs with lengthy autobiographical monologues, some of which are actually pretty fascinating, at least to the committed Malin-watcher. We learn that “Wendy”, arguably his finest four minutes, listed an old flame’s likes in a desperate bid to attract her back, and with whose path Malin’s recrossed at the Malmaison Hotel, just minutes from this theatre, when their respective tour itineraries landed them in Manchester simultaneously. (Gentleman that he is, he doesn’t disclose Wendy’s real name.) He reveals that the very fine “Aftermath” was inspired by John and Yoko’s beliefs, and that his covers album got a lot of airplay in branches of Home Depot and Ikea.
He also plays some music, although, as with that other verbose punk Billy Bragg it sometimes has to squeeze its way in through the gaps in the between-song raps. Despite stripping his songs back to just voice and acoustic guitar, with occasional support from a few hundred rhythmically disciplined clapping hands, the lack of a band is hardly felt during a generous and consistently wondrous ten song set. He dedicates “Almost Grown” to, amongst others, Bruce Springsteen’s recently felled saxophonist Clarence Clemons, and covers recent tourmates The Hold Steady’s “You Can Make Him Like You”. And, as if it matters, he looks uncannily like a version of Ron Wood that was cryogenically frozen in authentic New Wave clobber thirty years ago and revived especially for this tour.
The perplexing mystery about Malin’s live performance, though, is why he’s so much more entertaining as a support act than a headliner. It’s as though his songs and abilities are fully deserving of the larger venues and audiences being bottom of the bill can bring in, his sets yet more thrilling by leaving the audience wanting more rather than overly sated. However, just hours before tonight’s gig I’d already bought my ticket for his return to Manchester in November, this time with his band The St. Marks Social in tow, when he promises to play “The Fine Art Of Self Destruction” complete. Nothing I see or hear this evening gives me reason to regret that decision.
Given that I’ve already had my money’s worth by the interval, Ryan has the toughest of acts to follow, and he just about passes muster. When we’d all got together here previously, back in 2006, Adams played a whiny, petulant set studded with moments of occasional brilliance. His default demeanour seems to be a volatile combination of preciousness and self-deprecation (something he shares with the similarly variable Badly Drawn Boy). Sometimes the evening seems balanced on a knife-edge, especially during Adams’ interaction with hecklers, well-meaning or otherwise. There are times, perhaps too many, when what’s happening in the audience is more entertaining than what’s going on onstage. One gentleman who reacts to Ryan’s mention of Kiss with a four-letter summary of that band’s entire oeuvre is later forcibly removed from the auditorium when his mobile phone rings one time too many, and a concertgoer is applauded roundly for telling a lady who seems to find herself loudly fascinating to shut up.
There’s some music here as well, of course, mostly low-wattage acoustic excursions through the interminable ballad badlands of Adams’ extensive catalogue. Having never really warmed to the supposed brilliance of his debut album “Heartbreaker”, surprisingly well represented tonight, the highlights for me are from “Gold” (“New York, New York” recast as a piano ballad, played on an upright that looks like it’s been wheeled in from the nearest school assembly hall, “Firecracker”) and what must surely be the best Jeff Buckley album Jeff Buckley never lived to record, “Love Is Hell” (“This House Is Not For Sale”, “English Girls Approximately”). Also of note is the sinewy yet enigmatic storytelling “Carolina Rain”, which sounds like a series of snapshots in which the characters’ backstory and motivations are perpetually somewhere outside the frame. Tonight also reveals, perhaps surprisingly, the extent of Ryan’s vocal abilities; time and again I catch myself thinking that there’s a superb white soul singer somewhere inside him being throttled by maudlin material.
Certainly tonight is a lot more like entertainment than his last appearance at The Bridgewater Hall; it’s just unfortunate that, with his concision, passion and commitment Jesse Malin really is entertaining.