So with this new record, I think I can say I finally "get" Ryan Adams.
Not that I didn't like him before or anything. But I guess I just couldn't really understand what all the fuss was over this guy. I mean, he put out decent enough records — and at one point it seemed like he was releasing them at the rate of about one every month or so. So part of the problem there may have been simply keeping up with the output.
But while records like Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights certainly had their share of fine moments, there was also an uneven quality about them. For every near-great song, there'd be others that sounded more like castoffs from an artist who seemed hellbent on releasing every single song he ever committed to tape.
Most of all, to my ears, some of Adams' songs also lacked the one thing separating him from real greatness, which was a natural sounding quality of genuine warmth. Maybe, all of that well documented anger had something to do with it.
Regardless, by this time I was still really trying hard to "get" Ryan Adams because so many people I respect were busy singing his praises. I even went to see him play live for the first time last year, and ended up witnessing an acoustic show that was one of the biggest trainwrecks I have ever witnessed on a concert stage.
I'll have much more to say about that in my review of the Ryan Adams show I'll be seeing here in Seattle this weekend. Because based on the strength of Adams' new disc Easy Tiger, I'm giving him another shot. This new record is so good, that I'm really liking my chances of seeing a great concert this time out.
The biggest difference between Easy Tiger and all of the previous Ryan Adams discs for me is just how organic, warm, and natural sounding this record sounds. Not a note of these thirteen great new songs sounds the least bit forced or contrived. Despite the fact that a myriad of influences ranging from Gram Parsons and Neil Young, to the Rolling Stones and Wilco inform the relaxed singer-songwriter sort of vibe which permeates this album.
Personally, I've always liked Adams best when playing the country rock troubadour sort of role, and the twang factor on Easy Tiger is considerable. The guitars crackle with a Byrds like jangle from the get-go on "Goodnight Rose," while the harmonies recall something more like The Band circa Big Pink. That easy, backporch vibe continues with "Two," which finds Adams harmonizing with Sheryl Crow about how "it takes two, when it used to take one," as a lonely sounding steel guitar punctuates the bittersweet sentiment.
Ryan Adams has never sounded stronger, and more confident as a vocalist here. Whatever sort of catharsis he has experienced while he reportedly spent this past year "getting clean," it has apparently bled over into his music. For the first time, this is a Ryan Adams who seems to be quite comfortable and reconciled with the idea of living in his own skin.
As relaxed as many of the songs on Easy Tiger are, on the song "Halloweenhead," Adams shows he can still rock, even as he looks the devil straight in the eye without blinking in the song's brutally personal lyrics. With a chorus that repeats the phrase "Here comes that shit again, I've got a Halloweenhead," Adams runs through a litany of dark images and places from "black cats and falling trees," to "places where junkies meet" before concluding "what the fucks wrong with me, God, I'm a Halloweenhead."
If this song is what I think it's about (and that concert I saw last year supports this), then this is some of the most darkly personal sounding primal scream therapy I've heard in a song this side of John Lennon's "Cold Turkey."
Then just like that, Ryan Adams switches gears up to the understatement of "The Sun Also Sets." Probably the most beautiful track on this record, "The Sun Also Sets" finds Adams going from bittersweet longing for a past love where "I didn't know people faded out so fast," to a plea that soon turns to an anguished howl of "when you get these feelings, next time, next time, oh be sure."
This is the most passionate vocal performance on the album, and one where you get the unmistakable feeling there is a true personal experience lurking behind the words Adams sings here. Ryan Adams sounds so good here you can almost hear his heart breaking.
Adams continues the self-examination on the song "Rip Off," yet another gorgeous song where Adams seems to be confessing past sins. "I make these promises, but all my promises hurt, it's like they never get a lift off," he explains. Then in the very next line, he qualifies this by saying "So if it seems I'm being honest with you, and it seems like I'm being cruel, at least you didn't get a rip off."
The album closes with "I Taught Myself How To Grow Old" in which a lonesome harmonica soon makes way for another of those lovely steel guitars. Once again, Adams seems to be coming to terms with himself here in the lines "I taught myself how to grow, now I'm crooked on the outside, and the insides broke."
Easy Tiger is at this point, an easy candidate for the best album I've heard this year.
Ryan Adams backing band The Cardinals get into a twangy, relaxed groove pretty much from the gate, and they remain in that same unrelenting pocket throughout. The songs are absolutely first rate — there's not a single clunker in the lot — and they represent a new maturity, that in my mind should finally allow Adams to take his seat right alongside the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young as one of the great American songwriters. Ryan Adams has also never sounded anywhere near this good as a singer.
I think I finally see what all the fuss is about now. And I can't wait for the concert this weekend.