Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams’ Self Titled Album is a Flawed Success

Jessica Hopper

By Jessica Hopper

on 09.15.14 in Features

Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams opens his self-titled, 14th studio album by conjuring the past. With the first bright strum of his lightly chorused guitar, Adams is referencing the ass-end of the ’80s, the height of an era when middle-aged white men were chart-topping pop icons, belting contemplative rock ballads about displacement and confusion in Modern America. The entire album’s sound and themes hearken back to a place more middle-of-the-road than anything Adams has done before. And while on paper it has makings of some premium pap, Ryan Adams emerges as one of his darkest records.

We know that when Adams is good, he’s glorious. His voice is mournful and sweet, even when he’s singing a song that either goes nowhere or revisits familiar ground. Adams may insist this album bares the heavy influence of the Smiths and the Velvet Underground, but neither is evident in the music. Instead, Ryan Adams is his most musically generic work, taking the mature hooks of 2011′s Ashes & Fire, and flattening them until there’s no life left in them. Much of the album sounds weary, reflecting neither Adams’ capacity for hooks and tension or feeling of pleasure he’s capable of bring to a song. While Adams’ other recent LP, 1984, sounds exactly like Sorry Ma-era Replacements covering Husker Du’s Warehouse, this one sounds like All Shook Down-era ‘Mats covering the most turgid ballads from Don Henley’s End of the Innocence.

‘While on paper it has makings of some premium pap, Ryan Adams emerges as one of his darkest records.’

That, perhaps, is the point. The deadness of the songs mirrors the album’s bleak lyrics and mood, which are heavy with depression and unease. If there is a Smiths thread within Ryan Adams, (save for the Marr-esque lead on “Shadows”), it is in the Morrissey-like solipsism of these 11 songs. Adams is lost a grim world, one where he is, both spiritually and literally, in the dark (“night” gets 11 mentions on the record; “the dark,” six). What’s lacking is Moz’s grandiosity; Adams’ songs are modest, direct, stripped of sentimentality — it’s largely him gazing through the glass, darkly.

On almost every song, Adams sings of being out of place, seeking a home, having fallen away from the people or circumstances that once secured him. He’s in new orbits, either searching or aimless — in cars, on foot, in the night, in the day — just trying to reckon with what life has dealt him, and with a world where he feels he no longer belongs. It’s a distillation of the major Springsteenian themes, they’ve been gutted; Ryan Adams offers no point of redemption, and no one is saved by a woman’s love or by leaving town. On “Shadows” and “Trouble,” he’s humbled by mortality, the finiteness of time and that knowledge that he might have enough left to set mistakes right. “Shadows” attempts hope, trying to spark romantic fantasy while acknowledging the futility of it: “Put your arms around me/ let’s go for a ride/ How long do I have here with you? How long?” Trying to breathe a little life into a dead love, he sounds resigned. When he flips up to a falsetto and draws that final “long” for a full two measures, he reveals his bare yearning. Underneath the album’s dark pall is something incredibly tender.

“All my life… holding everything/ like it was broken,” he sings on “Gimme Something Good,” following with the title’s plea, a demand that builds to self-mockery; it’s the sobering realization of all you’ve pissed away while looking for some thrill, realizing that all the time you spent thinking the world was the problem, but finding out the problem was you — that you manufactured your own misery. While there are plenty of fuck you’s on this album (most notably to the new boyfriend on “Kim”), most of the accusations are directed inward.

Illuminating agony has always been Adams’ vocation, but this album is bleak even for him. It is also closer to a return to Heartbreaker than most anything else he’s done because of its vulnerability. It’s an album gripped by need, tethered to that first perfect solo album in the frailty of songs like “My Wreckin’ Ball.” As cultural critic David Dark has suggested, perhaps we are at our best when we are bewildered. Adams’ great skill is in his ability to draw us into this feel-bad wilderness with him, and to wrap his despair in corny ’80s indulgences. In the end, Ryan Adams‘s flaws make it one of the true successes of his career.