Ryan Adams: 29

Ryan Adams
Lost Highway

He cut it close — literally down to the wire — but with 29, Ryan Adams delivers his third new album of 2005. It seems that, for the first time in his 10-year career, Adams’s release schedule has finally caught up with his prolific output.

29 will take many by surprise, as both Rock N Roll and Love Is Hell surprised upon their release; it abruptly ends (for now, at least) his alt-country renaissance incited early this year by Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights. The songs (performed only by Adams with producer Ethan Johns and the Cardinals’ J.P. Bowersock) are stripped down and unrefined, often harking back to the hazy folk of Heartbreaker‘s “Amy”. They aren’t necessarily experimental, but meandering and indulgent (some even hit the seven- and eight-minute marks) with liberal excursions into soul searching, storytelling, and atmosphere painting.

Adams’s efforts often feel like wheels grinding over and over in a series of stubborn places, the very repetition of which, by the grace of mathematical odds, occasionally yields worthwhile results. The soft country shuffle “Carolina Rain” is Adams at his best and most obvious (perhaps, at this point, we can’t have one without the other). Though at eight minutes it’s far too long, “Strawberry Wine” is quite gorgeous even if it seems structurally lost — the rich, somewhat hallucinatory imagery (“Strawberry wine in clouds / Burning in the desert surrounded by flowers”) combined with the song’s organic instrumentation grounds impressionism into emotional resonance. And the second half of the hulking piano ballad “Night Birds” is subjected to an unexpected undertow of echo and decaying feedback. The song changes in an instant, sunk by studio torpedoes, and the effect is the album’s most adventurous and rewarding moment.

But mostly, 29 is inhabited by half-formed or downright failed songs that never get comfortable in the reductive environment. “29” is the album’s sole shitkickin’ electric countrybilly tune, a look back at a song like “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)” from experience’s perspective. It contains none of its predecessor’s firecracker intensity, instead recycling the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin'” and spinning yawning yarns about drugs, arrests, and a young man’s nonchalance. “Elizabeth, You Were Born to Play That Part”, a performance in need of resuscitation that rewards with a slight instrumental coda, never quite lives up to its superb Morrissey-esque title. “The Sadness”, a sweeping spaghetti western fiasco (I’m not kidding), is probably the record’s greatest embarrassment — let’s just say the desperado troubadour stance isn’t all that becoming.

The music on 29 reflects the title’s numerical proximity to Adams’s age when it was recorded; these songs feel like the remnants of a premature confrontation with mortality, a creative clearinghouse, or a concerted paddle stroke to push beyond certain impulses. There are profound concepts and slumbering truths that Adams is eager to excavate here, but the task at hand may be too large to grapple with. The continued lyrical allusions to water — people falling into bays and oceans, calls to the clouds to ease their heavy burdens — suggest, perhaps subconsciously, an artistic rebirth through the shedding of the past (hence Adams’s indulgence in rootsy music throughout the year). If that’s a sign that the best is still yet to come, then 29 could be the messy residue that a major transition leaves behind.

RATING 5 / 10
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