I have a friend. He has a theory. His theory is that Ryan Adams is the ultimate cipher. He thinks that Ryan is great at creating new music that sounds exactly like his influence du jour. As a result he likes Ryan, but he doesn’t consider him to be an important artist.
I have a problem with this theory. First, I’m not sure if it’s true. Secondly, I’m not sure it matters even if it is true. This theory is predicated on the idea that originality is the most important quality in determining whether an artist is important.
I think originality is great, especially when considering someone’s legacy. But to me, the most important quality in a songwriter is how many great songs they write. The most important quality in a performer is how affecting their performances are. That’s enough for me.
And while his performances may have been (used to be) erratic, over the last 20 years Ryan Adams has written more great songs than anyone on the planet.
Yes, I really believe that.
A great song burrows into your mind and into your soul, demanding to be heard over and over again until it leaves an indelible impression on your consciousness. You can’t get enough of a great song. A great song makes you jealous that you can’t write like that and grateful that someone can.
So the question for us in 2014, after an astounding number of records, both released and shelved, solo and with various bands, is: does Ryan Adams have any more great songs left in him?
Sometimes it takes a year or so for great songs to fully reveal themselves, but after a half dozen or so spins I’d say that “Ryan Adams” contains two great additions to the canon: “My Wrecking Ball” is a nice sad bastard folk tune and “Shadows” is an atmospheric jam. The rest of the tunes are consistently good but not necessarily memorable.
Ryan is in great voice throughout and his guitar has a clear, medium-thickness sound that is quite enjoyable.
Stylistically, the new album hews pretty close to the mature sound of “Ashes & Fire” and late-period Cardinals with an occasional dose of “Rock & Roll”. For reference, this is my third-favorite Ryan sound:
1) Sad bastard country
2) Jammy americana
3) Adult rock
4) Alternative rock
Bottom line: “Ryan Adams” is a consistently good, but infrequently great, adult rock album that will largely appeal to Ryan’s mature audience.