This album kills rock critics. At least that is what Ryan Adams wants you to believe. After two years of tumultuous relationships with the media, his fans, and the rest of the respected rock republic, Adams has birthed the album his record label wants you to hear. Like its predecessor, Gold, Rock N Roll furthers Adams’s reputation as a songsmith of doppelganger pop. Beginning with the tongue and cheek nod to the Strokes in the opener, “This Is It”, the references just keep rolling: Nirvana, the Replacements, Blur, Oasis channeled through T. Rex on second track “Shallow”, and countless others come to the forefront over the course of Rock N Roll‘s 14 tracks.
Beyond all of the pedestrian referential rock snobbery and record company sniping which has become part of the Adams mythos, the underlying question still remains: if this wasn’t the album he intended to release, then what was wrong with the one that was found to be unacceptable? The answer to this enigma will be released this year in two parts, as separate EPs: Love Is Hell Volumes 1 & 2. On Volume 1, released the same week as Rock N Roll, the answer is readily apparent. Unlike recent rejected offerings turned classic, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot being the most notable, this record seems to have been scrapped because it simply was not consistent enough to bear the Ryan Adams name. The EP is a hulking, bloated, self-indulgent body of songs that is more fat Elvis than Jailhouse Rock. While Love Is Hell: Volume 1 does have a few classic moments (the title track employs all of Adams’s signature traits), this first taste won’t have anyone other than core fans salivating for Volume 2’s release later this year.
In contrast, Rock N Roll is a lean mean rock critic fighting machine. Only one song tops the five-minute mark and many of the early songs are highlighted by lawnmower guitar riffs and guttural vocal stylings that recall both early AC/DC and a punch-up on The Jerry Springer Show. Willing to throw his reputation in the gutter, Adams also seems to have abandoned much of his first-class wordsmithery in favor of the visceral and simple imagery so common on countless albums in the latest garage rock revolution. Either Adams has become a believer in meditative chanting, or the countless repetition of lines during many choruses illustrates a lack of lyrical investment on his part. So few of the words feel earnest, and when they do, they are anchored by a song title that is insulting on its best day. Most notable is the Rock N Roll for Dummies reference embedded in the song title “She’s Lost TOTAL Control”, in which Adams seems to be winking at the listener before the song has even started.
Despite all of these criticisms, there is something innately magnetic about this album. It grabs hold of the listener in a subversive way that emphasizes the new Ryan Adams, in a state of rebirth as the boho boozehound poet of New York’s lower East Side. Perhaps he’s in a pissing match with his ex D-Generation buddy Jesse Malin, whose debut solo album Adams produced last year, or maybe he’s just giving us all the Finger once again. Either way, he has found a way to get us to invest emotionally in an album that he himself has clearly described as an outsider in his catalogue of literate and confessional post-alt-country pop.
Scattered amongst the rubbish, there are a number or compositions that will clearly end up on a “Best of” in years to come. Lead off batter “This Is It” is a first-class album track that borrows Strokesian guitar leads to issue a challenge to his critics and record label alike: “Don’t waste my time / This is It / This is really happening”. This type of sugar-coated spoon-feeding is also evident on “Wish You Were Here”, which borrows a guitar lead and a vocal melody from the verse of Rick Springfield’s timeless 1980’s hit “Jesse’s Girl”. The following track, “So Alive”, plays every trick in Manchester, England’s and Factory Records’ pop closet by starting with a syncopated guitar frenzy that evokes Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures” before laying down vocals that sound as if they were from a lost Survivor track recorded for Rocky III.
Adams briefly flirts with his alt-country past on “Do Miss America”, but quickly dances away from it by adding chorus lyrics — “Hey, come on everybody do Miss America / Hey, when she goes down it’s hysterical” — which make the song sound more like a parody of John Mellencamp than a new original. Even with these trite lyrics, the song kick-starts Rock N Roll with the first back-to-back batch of excellence to be seen on this record. “Boys” is true standout track where the vagabond thievery of Adams finally pays off. Lifting the vocal phrasing from Nirvana’s “Negative Creep” and channeling some of the lyrical ideas from Blur’s classic “Boys and Girls”, the song sounds fresh, anthemic, and relevant. All of the previous missteps seem to be corrected for the entirety of this track, and the fragmented ideas that worked in segments earlier in the album all seem to be corrected for the song’s three and a half minutes. The album closes with “The Drugs Not Working”, which, while not as pleasing as “Boys”, does a fair job of channeling Wilco’s “I Got You (At the End of the Century)” from Being There through Adams’s new garage rock veneer.
For an album named Rock N Roll, Ryan Adams’s third proper solo release is a difficult and dense listening experience. It takes many repeated spins to transcend the insider rock nods to get to the point where one can enjoy this album as its own entity. Throughout this album, the consistent theme is that the much-chronicled lawman of Whiskeytown wants to leave his alt-country history behind him in the dusty south and recreate himself with his move to gleaming Apple in the north. The question remains: will his followers, critics, and money men follow?