Ryan Adams, Prisoner
Photo: Rachael Wright

Is Ryan Adams’ Music Redeemable?

Whether one will still listen to the work of a musician who has done egregious harm to others is a personal choice. I still listen to Ryan Adams because “Desire” from Demolition is a stirring song I need to hear.

Ryan Adams
Lost Highway
24 September 2002

For a time there, it seemed that Ryan Adams might release an album that matched the best work of Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. In the early 2000s Adams was the frontman for Whiskeytown, the band that proved that, much to Geffen Record’s chagrin, no matter how good the songs, alt-country was never going to match the commercial success of grunge. When Whiskeytown imploded in a toxic stew of outsized expectations, alcoholism, label troubles, and electric but erratic live shows, Adams was 26 years old. He was a cult favorite, a troubled and combative punk rock kid turned country troubadour with an arresting voice and a prolific and remarkably talented songwriter. 

His 2000 solo debut Heartbreaker on Bloodshot Records was uneven but, in some places, masterful. The comparisons to Gram Parsons were already there, especially after the album’s centerpiece, “Sweet Carolina”, featured background vocals from Emmylou Harris. Sales were modest, but certain well-informed critics raved.  

Adams’ apex mountain came the following year with Gold, a sprawling and ambitious record that saw him expand his songwriting palette, penning everything from pop hits (“When the Stars Go Blue”) to nine-minute kiss-offs (“Nobody Girl”). Released two weeks after 9/11, the track “New York, New York” became an anthem of sorts. The album’s sales matched its title. Adams appeared to have the talent to ascend to major stardom with a growing and devout fanbase whose Dylan and Springsteen comparisons didn’t seem particularly farfetched.     

Then things got complicated. Adams reportedly struggled with substance abuse. He was capable of writing beautiful and heart-wrenching ballads but instead was spending drunken nights returning to his early love of abrasive punk rock. His label was not amused. 

Over the next two decades, Adams released a flood of music, spanning everything from jam rock to metal. He toured regularly, put out albums on his own label, and became a successful producer, working with everyone from Willie Nelson to Fall Out Boy. Oddly enough, for a songwriter of his renown, his biggest success during this time came with a cover of the Oasis hit “Wonderwall”, which earned Adams a Grammy nomination.

Covers had long been a part of Adams’ live show, and in 2015 he released a full-album reimaging of Taylor Swift’s 1989. Adams’ 1989 reinterpreted the songs with moody sonic touches closer to the era of the album’s title than the gloss of present-day hits. Swift heartily endorsed the project. While 1989 charted well, it seemed an unlikely detour for Adams. Why has a songwriter of his talent covered an entire album of a much more famous artist who was in her artistic and commercial prime?

Following that project, Adams returned to the studio. But several of his own releases were delayed in 2019 after a New York Times exposé in which his ex-wife pop star Mandy Moore and collaborator Phoebe Bridgers, among others, accused Adams of sexual misconduct, including with underage fans. The allegations were ugly enough to warrant an FBI inquiry, which was later dropped. Adams denied the most serious accusations but issued an apology for what he characterized as “mistreatment”. 

Adams’ “misbehavior”, if you will, complicates appreciating his music. Sadly, this is an all-too-frequent dilemma with some of the artists we love. Where and how to draw that line is a personal choice. Some listeners weigh the seriousness of the artist’s misdeeds; for example, Win Butler’s alleged unwanted lewd text messages don’t negate the majesty of Arcade Fire’s music, but Isaac Brock being accused of rape means some will no longer listen to Modest Mouse. Others factor in the artist’s talent and body of work and decide from there.

Listening to Adams’ music today necessitates a willingness to put aside the creator’s flaws. In his public apology, he writes of efforts to be a better man and says, “I’m really trying.” I’m glad, but that’s not why I still listen to Adams. I listen because “Desire”, from the 2002 album Demolition, is as stirring a song as any recorded that year. Adams is one of only a handful of songwriters making music today capable of reaching those emotional heights in this genre. I am unwilling to let his behavior detract from my appreciation of his art, but I respect the valid reasons why others choose not to.  

Adams’ behavior cost him a record deal and his manager and delayed the release of several of his albums. But if he was so-called “canceled”, it didn’t last long. Over the past two years, he has put out two more full-length albums, which, despite some gems, received little attention. He is touring, and his shows have been drawing well. Recently, he has released song-by-song covers of Springsteen’s Nebraska and Dylan’s Blood on Tracks in their entirety. Unlike his 1989 covers album, for the most part, Adams is not radically altering many of the songs on either record. 

There are enough Dylan covers for it to be its own genre. Adams’ version of the opening song on Blood on the Tracks, the indelible “Tangled Up in Blue”, is a straightforward rendition. Adams’ voice is more palatable if less distinctive than Dylan’s, but sonically there is little difference, nor does Adams deliver any of the song’s clever wordplay notably. When Adams does deviate from Dylan’s delivery, it’s not necessarily for the better.

Dylan sings, “You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go” in a jaunty, almost lighthearted manner, an effective contrast to the poignant lyrics. Adams’ delivery is more consistent with the lines he is singing, but that makes it less memorable. He fares better on “Shelter from the Storm”, in which Adams’ expressive voice and greater range are able to bring new dimensions to Dylan’s biting lyrics. He concludes with an extended guitar coda reminiscent of the Grateful Dead as a nice finishing touch.     

Blood on the Track‘s most striking moments come when Adams abandons Dylan’s song structure entirely. He adds two minutes of sonic experimentation to “You’re a Big Girl Now” and “Buckets of Rain”, which are intriguing, but could have been a component of any of the songs or an Adams original.  

Adams faces a different set of challenges in covering Nebraska. Dylan is a genius songwriter with a voice that is part of the package, one that his fans have grown to appreciate. On the other hand, Springsteen is one of rock’s greatest all-time performers, capable of belting out choruses, crooning love songs, or captivating stadium crowds with just his voice and an acoustic guitar. Nebraska is a quiet, meditative record, but Bruce still sings the hell out of it.

On “Atlantic City”, Adams rises to the challenge, singing with the urgency the song warrants. Springsteen himself has reworked the song as a barn-burner, but Adams’ version matches that intensity with fewer adornments. Elsewhere he is less effective. He adds a distracting echo to “Mansion on the Hill”, detracting from the song’s plain desperation. “Johnny 99” and “Highway Patrolman” are inherently good songs, but Adams’ versions are superfluous to anyone familiar with the originals.

There have been good covers of songs from both albums. Neko Case does a lovely version of Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain“, and Dar Williams’ rendition of Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman” makes the song her own. Case and Williams are exceptional vocalists, and the contrast between their traditionally beautiful voices vs. the growly originals is the most obvious change. But Case and Williams’ respective versions reveal elements not there in the originals, adding layers of meaning in their vocal intonation not there when Adams sticks closer to his predecessors’ styles.  

Adams’ talent isn’t an obligation. He doesn’t owe us anything. If he wants to take a detour and karaoke two of the best rock albums ever recorded, more power to him. Springsteen and Dylan have also both recorded covers albums. The difference is they did so far after their creative peaks, towards the end of remarkable careers and they had nothing left to prove. In 2023, Adams is 48 years old. At that age, Dylan released Oh Mercy, one of his stronger efforts from his later period. Likewise, at age 48, Springsteen was yet to record The Rising. Neither artist was looking backward, but they still had much striving to add to their legacies.        

Nebraska was released in 1982, and Blood on the Tracks seven years earlier. Today, even a rock record that reached the creative heights of these classics wouldn’t have anywhere near the cultural impact they once did. There would be little radio airplay and no magazine covers. It probably wouldn’t even trend on Twitter. But as one of the few working songwriters with at least the potential to match these albums, one can’t help but wish Adams would try.