Ryan Adams’ stylistic shifts are well-documented by now, his chameleon-like abilities almost the stuff of legend. At this point, if he pulled a Zelig and showed up disguised as a member of the Chieftains, the Isley Brothers, or a Bulgarian folk troupe, no one would be too surprised. These days, it’s not a question of whether Adams can pull off this or that style, it’s a question of whether there’ll be anything at the heart of it. Will it be just an empty genre exercise, or will we get the Ryan Adams who excited everyone in the first place, the Ryan Adams who can blend melody and words to create something special and memorable?
For his part, Adams has released some decent albums, with some truly excellent songs thrown in the mix — sometimes enough good songs to justify all the hype, sometimes barely enough good ones to keep people interested. Looking back on his solo output, though, Adams’ records hold up better than expected, giving weight to the argument that a lot of criticism against him stems from his audience clamoring for a return to the frayed alt-country of Whiskeytown (and let’s face it, his behavior at times hasn’t made people feel particularly charitable, either). Make no mistake, he’s released some weak stuff over the years, but in hindsight, those moments of fluff seem less like utter betrayals of his gifts than they did at the time. By now, though, our expectations are probably a little lower, too.
This year’s Cold Roses found Adams returning (by way of the Dead’s American Beauty) to the twang-laced sound that his fans had been wishing for since his Whiskeytown and Heartbreaker days. Jacksonville City Nights does Cold Roses one better, largely leaving the alt-country behind in favor of pure country.
The album sets its tone straight from the opener, “A Kiss Before I Go”, a pedal steel-soaked barstool lament that finds Adams musing, “the engine turns on a dime but I ain’t going nowhere tonight / I ain’t been going nowhere for quite a while”. Bookending the album with the ragged lurch of “Don’t Fail Me Now”, the song establishes the sense of stasis that runs through most of Jacksonville‘s songs, songs where neon bar signs are all that break literal and figurative darkness and where voids were once filled with good women. That’s nothing new for Adams, who’s always excelled at documenting lack of momentum and romantic aftermath, but here, those threads tie the disc together nicely. Jacksonville peaks early, in the excellent hometown lament, “The End”, which finds Adams practically wailing his way through lyrics like “Jacksonville, how you burden my soul / How you hold all my dreams captive / Jacksonville how you play with my mind / How my heart goes bad / Suffocating on the pines in Jacksonville”.
The rest of the album, though, is still pretty strong, especially as it starts to stray from traditional country structures. “Games” unfolds more slowly than would be allowed of any mainstream Nashville lament, while the piano and strings of “Silver Bullets” have an off-kilter feel that perfectly underscore Adams’ tale of dissolution. “September” somehow pulls off the trick of describing a mourner’s thoughts through a combination of a catchy, sing-song melody and a slowed-to-a-crawl chorus.
Overall, Jacksonville City Nights is a fun listen, even if the subject matter is often less than joyous. For one thing, the Cardinals are a good fit as Adams’ backing band, making their way through quiet meditations with the same confidence that they hit the rails on a barn-burning track like “Trains”. It’s also good to hear Adams with the twang back in his voice. He may feel, as he once told an interviewer, that Whiskeytown was “a creative prison”, but his voice and persona practically nestle themselves into countrified arrangements. The added benefit is that, even if he does coast through a little of Jacksonville City Nights, it doesn’t sound like it.
Jacksonville City Nights is one of the most enjoyable records of Adams’ solo career, one that continues what many would consider a recovery from the scattershot efforts of the last few years. Adams still hasn’t made the solo record that everyone feels he’s capable of, but Jacksonville City Nights ranks with his most solid records.