Well, Ryan Adams can still get away with it. I mean, you really want to hate the guy he's a poser rock star with a reputation built upon live tirades, actress girlfriends, prolific output, and interview quotes apparently designed to piss people off. Rock N Roll, his guitar-driven previous release, was a big middle finger to the Interpols and Strokes of the world, saying anything that you can do I can do better. Though the new double album Cold Roses is audacious, more than that, it's calmer and sadder. The precocious kid is growing up.
And smoking a lot. If Stranger's Almanac, the best album by his previous
outfit Whiskeytown, was Ryan Adams channeling Gram Parsons, and if his breakthrough, Gold,
was classic rock dues, this is his Grateful Dead tribute. The gatefold picture
the dancing bears, flowers, and tea make for a perfect stoner sunset, one that's
easy to picture on a nouveau-hippie's T-shirt at the next Bonnaroo. The music
features rambling solos with spiky melodies, slow-churning beats, and vague Americana
references, built from (mostly) traditional guitars-bass-drum instrumentation.
Adams has a real flair for melody. The first single, "Let It Ride," is a by-the-numbers country-rock tune, complete with references to Carolina, Tennessee, and being at the bar until 3 a.m. By-the-numbers until the bridge, at least, when Adams neatly falsettos about parked cars and movie theatres as the melody reaches up and darts back and forth above the churning guitar and drums with a whole new hook. The deftness and casualness make it just seem effortless. On the album closer "Friends," the piano is calming and graceful, beautifully augmenting the guitar fills that add ache to the song. And as with many of his best songs, because the melody just aches, it's inviting and comfortable to attach interpretations and experiences to the rather oblique lyrics ("Like Christmas on a river/ Without a boat or Christmas tree").
True to form, it's still all about heartache, in a myriad of forms. On Cold Roses, Adams visits old rooms ("Now That You're Gone"), old homes ("Cherry Lane"), and old friends ("If I Am A Stranger"). There's a weariness to the songs that fits the music perfectly the first lyric on the album is "I want to go to Magnolia Mountain/ And lay my weary head down." I'd like to argue that songs like "How Do You Keep Love Alive" and "Life Is Beautiful" show Adams coming from a stronger sense of place and sense of self, but the kid is just so prolific it's impossible to tell if this is a sea change, or just another phase.
Ultimately, Cold Roses won't likely convert the hipsters and naysayers
who gave up on Adams a long time ago. As with many double albums, there's a bit
of filler here. At times the songs blur together the songs at the end
of disc one in particular seem too similar and a bit bland. And the tales of
heartbreak and sadness are mostly just good stories, rarely providing my-problems-are-your-problems
connections or cathartic transcendence. But Cold Roses isn't a step backwards,
either. It's a relaxed and ambitious collection that confirms Ryan Adams' reputation
as a top-notch singer and songwriter who easily jumps styles and evokes comfortable
sadness with every turn. And it's something to keep listening to as he grows