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Ryan Adams' long-awaited follow-up to 'Ashes & Fire' features one of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers, but more importantly, it's got catchy pop rock gems that the likes of Petty and Paul Westerberg fans may dig.

Music Review: Ryan Adams – ‘Ryan Adams’

Three years is a long time between studio albums for Ryan Adams. If you’re a fan, you likely know the backstory by now – the abandoned Glyn Johns-produced follow-up to 2011’s excellent, acoustic-centered Ashes & Fire, his 2013 Record Store Day punk rock side project Pornography’s release, 7 Minutes in Heaven, and his recent (very impressive) early hardcore/punk rock tribute EP titled 1984. {Keep in mind the dude’s also a serious metal fan too, which is pretty awesome for a guy who got his fame started in an alt-country band, Whiskeytown.}

So between all that, playing out, and producing records for everyone from Fall Out Boy to Ethan Johns and the one and only Jenny Lewis (The Voyager), the man’s been pretty much been working on music in some fashion non-stop since Ashes & Fire came out – to be factual, he’s never stopped doing something music-related. Slowing down is not his thing – he will soon be 40 years old, but he could probably care less. Age ain’t nothing but a number, as they say.

Ryan Adams - Self-Titled (2014 CD)Today, September 9, 2014 marks the official end to the studio album drought for Adams, as his new and self-titled affair officially hits stores. Mainly helmed by Adams (and self-named because he couldn’t think of a better title), it is also officially co-produced by musician and “recording partner” Mike Viola, with contributions by names you might be familiar with. They include his wife Mandy Moore (backup vocals on “Trouble,” “Am I Safe”), Benmont Tench (longtime Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers organist/piano player), and even actor – and serious musician – Johnny Depp on guitar and backup vocals on a couple of numbers (“Kim,” “Feels Like Fire”).

Even with names like that, with the exception of Tench, the contributions they give are rather quiet ones. This is still a purely Ryan Adams record, from start to finish. As he told Stereogum in a fresh interview, “I fucking self-produced. And went with my demos.” He goes on (and on) about how as much as he respects producers, at this point, with his own studio and label (both named PAX AM) nowadays, he’d rather not have somebody else’s vision of what’s best for a particular record anymore, even if that means going with his own “weird” instincts. I don’t blame him.

The lonely, Springsteen-ish folk of “My Wrecking Ball” and first track “Gimme Something Good” – the latter being a not so surprisingly Heartbreakers-sounding throwback given the presence of Tench on organ – are early favorites. A lot of times, you can tell if a song is from the ’80s or sounds like an ’80s tune/album not just by the synths but by the sheer presence of the deep cut of the snare drum, with a little reverb/echo or a borderline ridiculous amount of it that gives the snare an explosive sound (a la Guns ‘N Roses’ “Paradise City”). The somewhat deep snare is what you hear on this and other tracks. And it’s no surprise he would go for that and also with some Smiths-sounding chorus effects to color many guitar phrases, since Adams has let it be known he still worships the likes of Simple Minds, The Replacements, The Wipers and other notable ’80s acts. That being said, the production still feels mostly modern on here – or at least it’s his attempt of a modern take on some classic rock sounds. (His recently self-released 1984 EP from his 7-inch series, on the other hand, purposely sounds like Husker Du.)

Speaking of The Replacements, “I Just Might” has a Paul Westerberg-meets-Springsteen feel to it. But as cooly quiet as Adams’ lonesome palm-muted guitar approach is, the tune never fully takes off and instead fades out a bit too early, around the 3:30 mark. The only other disappointment – and I hesitate to use such a term – but if you were looking for acoustic gems like Ashes & Fire standout “Lucky Now,” or the next great and mildly humorous laid-back folk gem in the vain of classics like “Come Pick Me Up,” there’s not much of that on this new, nearly all-electric guitar-based record. “Am I Safe” and album closer “Let Go” star acoustic guitars, but that’s the closest you’re going to get to that flavor of his sound. Harmonica-aided Neil Young-style folk and Willie Nelson-ish country/Americana songs are in his past.

Lyrically, he balances dark themes (the personal destruction of “My Wrecking Ball”) with more positive resolve “Gimme Something Good”). And that is a triumph that benefits us listeners as much as it does his own conscience.

By the time you get to the end of the record, the singer/songwriter’s easygoing production style clearly takes on a glistening Lindsey Buckingham vibe on excellent track, “Tired of Giving Up.” Well-placed acoustic flourishes brighten up that one but really stand out on the aforementioned final and 11th tune, “Let Go.” Tench’s quiet, droning organ touches on this and other Adams tracks add noticeable color and depth as well – you wouldn’t expect anything less, I would hope.

Ryan Adams won’t be mistaken for classics like Heartbreaker, Cold Roses, Love Is Hell, or Gold (to some extent), but as of right now, it’s a very respectable entry into his always expanding catalog. It doesn’t exactly mirror any other LP of his, but with close to 15 full albums out now, I don’t know exactly where it fits in quite yet, but for now, ranking it in the middle of the pack sounds about right.

Essential Cuts: “My Wrecking Ball,” “Gimme Something Good,” “Let Go,” and “Trouble”

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About Charlie Doherty

Senior Music Editor and Culture & Society (Sports) Editor at Blogcritics Magazine; Prior writing/freelancing ventures: copy editor/content writer for Penn Multimedia; Boston Examiner, EMSI, Demand Media, Brookline TAB, Suite 101 and Helium.com; Media Nation independent newspaper staff writer, printed/published by the Boston Globe at 2004 DNC (Boston, MA); Featured in Guitar World May 2014. Keep up with me on twitter.com/chucko33

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One comment

  1. Ryan Adams has so many great albums it’s difficult to pick just one as his best, but Gold was the first Adams record I purchased. I didn’t like. To this day it’s still low on my list.

    This new record is his best since Cold Roses.