The Cardinals could be the best thing that happened to Ryan Adams. Before they came along, Adams output was in a full-on tailspin. With the hollow indie rock of Rock N Roll and the underwhelming trudge of Love Is Hell it sounded like Adams had lost the thread. But the Cardinals came along and worked with him back towards the right path with the big So Cal jam of Cold Roses and the whiskey-soaked Jacksonville City Nights. In the Cardinals, Adams has the best kind of backing band: a talented and polished group of collaborators that appear to encourage his prolific output while helping him keep his focus from song to song.
Sometimes, of course, the focus becomes too clean, too cold, and parts of their last album, Easy Tiger, felt that way. Despite standouts like “Two” and “Everybody Knows”, the album was overly slick and a little tame, no pun intended. Without the big sound of Cold Roses, or the loose shuffle of Jacksonville City Nights, Adams and the band sounded a little lost treading poppier waters. But Cardinology shows them settling into that sound a little better.
Overall, the album is still polished to a shine, but when its working it clings to a dust that has always coated the best of Adams output. On lead single “Fix It”, Adams lets his voice strain and crack ever so slightly at moments, and the palm-muted dark guitar riffs in the verses are bumpy roads to the smooth pining of the chorus. “Go Easy” has the Cardinals flexing just enough muscle behind Adams, who battles himself, going quickly from strident shout to honeyed whisper in the same couplet. On “Born in the Light”, the band takes a decidedly more stripped-down approach, bolstering the track with little more than a simple beat and some lilting pedal steel. It’s a song that excludes the over-orchestration of Easy Tiger and is better for it.
But those are the obvious moments where Adams and the Cardinals gel, where they make songs that are solid but not stand outs. The quiet sounds here are what really steal the show. The backing vocals and harmonies are great wherever they pop up on Cardinology. Many of the songs sound like Adams is leading a drunken, swaying chorus of sad cowboys. And the final three songs show the band’s most subtle and effective instrumental contributions. Haunting drones of guitar notes buried deep in “Evergreen” turn the song from simple folk ditty to bittersweet and well-textured ballad. The slew of guitars on the equally affecting “Like Yesterday” don’t attack with their riffs so much as hit and glide like so many rivulets of rain water on a window. And the closer “Stop”, mostly just Adams and a piano, uses a light touch of strings that don’t feel saccharin in their restraint and always give way to a pedal steel that is so enmeshed in the piano line they could both be coming from the same instrument.
It’s moments like those that will make you think Adams is capable of another classic, that might make you go revisit the underappreciated 29 with a closer ear. But there are other moments on Cardinology that bring us back to earth, that remind us there is still a self-indugent goofball streak in Adams. The empty pop-rock of “Magick” — which is all about turning the radio up and dancing, with verses full of inexplicable and extended weapon metaphors — fails in just about every way. “Sink Ships” is similarly undone by Adams’ overuse of the weak image of a job application. And “Natural Ghost” aims for country rambling, maybe, but hits on mindless wandering.
Those songs are out and out missteps, ones that keep Cardinology from being a great record, despite some very strong moments. But the songs that miss, those “Halloweenhead” moments, would have been much less forgivable back in 2004, when Adams sounded like a singer who’d lost his identity. But with the Cardinals, and on his own with 29, he’s done a lot of work to get back where he is. He’s still one of the great songwriters out there, and there’s still a great album in him. The best parts of Cardinology show that. He just needs to shake off those few last lingering bad habits.