"You obviously have like, a problem with me, not with the music, because you can't refute it, obviously, because it's too fucking good, and you know it is." Ryan Adams, from a message he left on Chicago Sun-Times music critic Jim DeRogatis' answering machine
I was ready to be very nice to Ryan Adams. I've been thinking about him and his troubles all week. But I figured I'd forget about his bouts with the White Stripes and the fact that Paul Westerberg wants to kick his teeth in. Or that he heckles the fans who taunt him with meaningless cries of "Bryan Adams!" Or that Indonesia is his favorite country this week because they recently released Rock N RolI on cassette.
Instead, I thought I'd focus on his music. But now this surfaces, the saddest answering machine message I've heard in ages (if you have to hear it, it's making the rounds on the Internet). Poor Ryan Adams. So he got a bad review (the reason he left that message). Grow up; take it like a man.
Here's the thing: Ryan Adams has the potential to be one of the most talented songwriters around, but he could use a reality check. When he's good, he's so very good. But when he's bad just give Rock N Roll a listen it's a betrayal of his talent. Rock N Roll is a mediocre collection of sloppy, rushed songs (put together in just 23 days). I want to like Ryan Adams, I really do, but his emphasis on quantity over quality is making that difficult.
The word on the street is that when Lost Highway, Adams' label, heard Love Is Hell, they asked for something that was a little more rock 'n' roll and a little more radio-friendly. So Adams gave them Rock N Roll, which was released as his latest album, while Love Is Hell was released quietly as two EPs.
The two Love Is Hell EPs feature some of Adams' best recent material. They showcase what he's good at heartfelt and idiosyncratic pop songs that stick in your head and keep your toes tapping. It's a little bit rock, a little bit country, but sentimental pretty much all the way through.
During the last two years, in addition to Rock N Roll and the Love Is Hell EPs, he's released the demos collection Demolition, an alt-metal side project album with ex-D Generation member Jesse Malin, and announced plans for a five-disc box set filled with whatever else he's recorded in the not even three years since Gold. Not to say that genius can't happen quickly, but Adams could use more time at the drawing board. Sometimes, less is more, and Adams would be doing himself a favor if he released just one album every year or so.
Back to Love Is Hell. These EPs were recorded at New York City's fabled Chelsea Hotel, a place where many artists and writers before Adams (and likely long after him) have gone seeking inspiration mixed with a little bit of madness. It is, of course, the quintessential New York location to follow the quintessential New York song you know, that one called "New York, New York." It's this give and take between drama and danger that's prominently featured on Love Is Hell. On the catchy "This House Is Not for Sale," he sings "I danced you across the wooden floor and you signed the lease," perhaps a testament to the resiliency of a good relationship and the promise of sticking around for awhile. And his melancholy cover of the Oasis staple "Wonderwall" evokes demons I don't think Noel Gallagher has yet experienced. And that's only "Part 1."
Love Is Hell Part 2 continues on in the same vein, this time in tribute to the Chelsea Hotel and the ups and downs of life in New York City. "City Rain, City Streets" is one of the standouts on this EP, with its spacey revelations about "bad poets" in heaven who have taken one for the team, so to speak. "Thank You Louise" is another winner, a timely meditation on winter and death, a "mother of three" who ends up only with two. He closes this EP out with the excellent and bluesy "Hotel Chelsea Nights," this one about a broken relationship. "How long's it gonna be, babe," he sings. "Before I get over you, doll/ I bet it's gonna be awhile, kid/ What with you living right up the hall."
Love Is Hell is definitely worth a few listens. Still, the songs on these EPs don't grab me like his earlier work did, and that's disappointing. When Adams sings "There's no guarantees" on Love Is Hell Part 1's plaintive opening track, "Political Scientist," does he really mean it? There are no guarantees, right? OK, maybe just one: a message on my answering machine, courtesy of one Ryan Adams.