Ryan Adams has an absurd amount of unreleased material. Just a few years after the dissolution of his band Whiskeytown, the Prince of alt-country (for lack of a better description) bragged about having a full boxset worth of material on the back burner. Now that Adams’ contract with Lost Highway has run out, the always prolific singer-songwriter is free to unload these things on his own label while on a sabbatical from music. And though his sci-fi metal album Orion certainly gave his fans quite the start earlier this year, Cardinals III & IV is more of a business-as-usual kind of album, picking up where he left off before getting married.
Not that this is a bad thing. When it comes to the Cardinals serving as Adams’ backing band, business can be quite good. Fans can debate the virtues of the flaws and indulgences on display in Rock N Roll, Love Is Hell, and 29, but with the Cardinals behind him, Adams has never fallen flat on his face in embarrassment. This is where Ryan Adams & the Cardinals’ best strength can easily turn against them; they are sturdy and reliable like a hefty box… and sometimes just as exciting. Recorded during the sessions that spawned Easy Tiger, Cardinals III & IV sounds like a less confident version of its counterpart, occasionally retaining the verve of Rock N Roll but missing the magnetic pull if his best work.
Like his overlooked masterpiece Cold Roses, Cardinals III & IV is presented as a double album that could easily have fit onto one CD. But since people rarely think of albums in halves anymore (if they think of music as albums in the first place), Adams more than likely wants this album to be approached as a twofer. There doesn’t appear to be an overarching theme to differentiate one disc from another, though the second one isn’t as averse to getting silly as the first. “Numbers”, some sort of multi-movement mini-suite of math rock with a refrain of “We’re fucked,” sounds like Adams lost a bar bet but was having fun in the process. “Icebreaker” and “Sewers at the Bottom of the Wishing Well” are throwbacks of the hair riff variety. The quirky art changes heard on “Numbers” make a slight return on “Star Wars”, a song about wanting a girlfriend. I think. Wrapping up the album is “Kill the Lights”, which is a total gas since Big Trouble in Little China is name-dropped amongst the heavy punk riffage as the “Kill! The Lights!” chorus changes to “Street! Fight! Tonight!” These are all reminders that, sometimes, totally silly Ryan Adams can be preferable to sort-of boring Ryan Adams.
The listeners’ attitude towards silliness notwithstanding, the bulk of the album is pretty good, even if it surprises no one. The ingredients for Ryan Adams’ sound have not gone under any radical change over the years (Orion is an outlier): mix one spoonful of Paul Westerberg with a spoonful of Grateful Dead, add a dash of Morrissey and/or the Smiths, sprinkle it all with an urban Americana spirit, and you have pretty much everything the Cardinals have touched. To be fair, many of these songs do improve over multiple spins, like the would-be pop hit “Stop Playing with My Heart” or the nostalgic tale of the girl next door “Gracie”. “Breakdown into the Resolve” is as good an opener as any, giving a chance for Rock N Roll‘s detractors to breathe easy. But as expected with a double album containing 21 tracks, Cardinals III & IV contains its fair share of songs that don’t really do anything, like “Death and Rats” and “Dear Candy”.
Cardinals III & IV is not a bad album. If you are willing to put a little bit of time and effort into the listening experience, it might be better than not bad. But as it stands, it’s too plain and middle-of-the-road to qualify as one of Ryan Adams’ best works. Given how it’s a collection of shelved recordings from three years ago, that’s not really a shock, now is it?