Ryan Adams has been called a lot of things: genius, dilettante, torchbearer, charlatan. There may not be another singer-songwriter of the past 10 years who has been as equally deified and vilified as Adams. Regardless of personal opinion, no one can dispute his prolific habits; yet, like Rod Stewart’s betraying his own talent in the late ‘70s, Adams’s greatest gift has become his worst enemy. He’s unofficially competing with Robert Pollard for the Most Unheard Songs Written in an Entire Lifetime—and the everyday consumer would never know just how many of those songs are strong, for they never see the light of day. For example: In 2000, at a solo show in Cambridge, MA, Adams performed countless new songs for hours—many of which he claimed to have written the night before, most of which were frequently inspired, and all of which remain unreleased. So why are we given fleeting glances at brilliance on a random night like that and half-hearted disappointments in what he chooses to release?
The greater problem is that Adams has not released a solo album as consistently strong as Whiskeytown’s Stranger’s Almanac, a ‘Mats-with-cowboy-hats collection of heartwrenching tunes performing with a gleam of nihilism. This provides an easy target for his detractors, those who thought his arrival was a crash and are now watching it all burn; in turn, it makes it harder to defend him, even with the knowledge that he has better material to offer. Half of his solo debut Heartbreaker is perfect, the other half terribly irritating; the best songs on his major label debut Gold weren’t actually on the record, but tucked away on the bonus EP; and recent efforts like the Love Is Hell dual-EP set and Rock N Roll were worthy, if spotty, genre experiments.
Adams is setting out to make 2005 one of his most prolific years yet. The double-disc Cold Roses, credited to Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, is merely the first of three promised albums in the span of the next six months. Contrary to what you may have heard, however, Cold Roses is not a return to form; instead, it’s an attempt to rediscover whatever that “form” is supposed to be. It’s as if Adams is doing an imitation himself, of what he thinks “Ryan Adams” should be, or what fans at large expect: the roots rocker, the alt-country troubadour, all that clichéd Gram Parsons successor rubbish. Instead of being content to flirt with genres and obsessions a la Love Is Hell or Rock N Roll, he’s going through the motions of his past, phoning in a mediocre facsimile of Whiskeytown’s already mediocre swan song Pneumonia. Unfortunate, really, because it’s guaranteed that he’s got far superior stuff crammed in his head or lost on the leaflets of old composition notebooks.
Album opener “Magnolia Mountain”, one of the best songs here, is Cold Roses’ prototype, setting forth its standards of pace (sleepy eyed, mid-tempo, graveled American Beauty roots rock) and imagery (hummingbirds and bluebirds; rocks, roses, and riverbeds). The very next song, “Sweet Illusions”, boasts one of Adams’s soaring pop choruses (traced by some ghostly lap steel), but its substance is undermined by sloppy lyrical couplets. By “Meadowlake Street”, the third track, it’s clear that Adams is just rubbernecking his own young legacy; the mood and pretension are just about right, but the melody’s missing and words are crushed into unaccommodating cadences. And so goes the quick downward spiral of disc one: the bluesy rave-up “Beautiful Sorta” trips over a chorus as clumsy as its performance (“It’s beautiful sorta / Beautiful sorta, but not”), the imitation country of “Cherry Lane” balances on parody (courtesy of Adams’s goofball Hank Williams yodel abominations), and “How Do You Keep Love Alive” labors over Adams’s favorite subject—tortured, perpetual heartache—until you’re turned off. “What does it mean to be so sad?” What does it mean? Who cares?
Disc two opens with “Easy Plateau”, a perfectly decent piece of folk-rock (wringed with the tie-dye stains of a restless electric guitar); but arriving after 40 minutes of comparable mediocrity, the welcome mat’s worn and frayed. “Let It Ride” picks up steam for a brief moment, capitalizing on things that the rest of the album neglects: a sudden low piano drop at the start of the chorus, a shadowy lead guitar line, a memorable melody, for God’s sake. But like its companion, the second disc perpetuates more half-formed, melodically challenged Adams-isms, some snarled hound doggery here (“Cold Roses”) and harmonica-helmed throwaways there (“Dance All Night”). And it’s not just generic y’alternative that he’s hocking: Adams pushes a lot of self-pity on the record (“27 years of nothing but failures”, “I’m broken like the windows in the house where I used to live”), but rarely does he sell it. Adams’s best songs demand empathy (“To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)”, “Come Pick Me Up”, “Avenues”), but here lines are over-read and uninspired, delivered like they’re part of the elaborate act to present this idealized vision everyone’s squinted to see.
The Cardinals—J.P. Bowersock, Cindy Cashdollar, Brad Pemberton, and Catherine Popper—don’t help matters with their characterless, wooden performances. (My personal hopes that the band, which was drab at best on Adams’s fall tour, upstaged by the God-fearing farm-funk of openers Olabelle, would sound better on record, have been unceremoniously dashed.) They don’t possess the tesla coil plumage of Whiskeytown or the backroom ramshackle of the pick-up team on Heartbreaker. The Cardinals do accomplish a singular task: they keep Adams safe, restrained, uncomplicated, and unassuming. If we can’t have the real Ryan Adams on record, we at least deserve the one who’s restless and unsatisfied, not one who hacks into his own familiar territory with his edges dulled by comfort. “I want an easy plateau / Some place to lay my head,” Adams insists and, with Cold Roses, it seems he’s found such a place. It’s not so hard to find.