November 6, 2003

Ryan Adams: lloR N KcoR Is Not a Word

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Ryan Adams, the brash and impetuous young singer-songwriter and guitarist, is a pop culture enigma of the first order. Once the poster boy of the burgeoning alt-country movement — both as the front man for the now defunct country-rock pioneers Whiskeytown and subsequently as a solo artist — his most recent release finds him straying farther and farther from a genre he helped to define. Mr. Adams’s newest release, delivered Tuesday via Lost Highway, is an excellent rock album.

The record, titled lloR N kcoR (go ahead, hold it up to a mirror) is a high-energy batch of solid songs and superb melodies that, for most any other artist, would be an unqualified success. And, indeed, it seems that for Mr. Adams, astoundingly prolific and remarkably gifted, constant evolution is the goal. But is his obsessive insistence on redefining himself as an artist truly forward progress? It’s getting increasingly difficult to tell if Mr. Adams is really advancing his art or simply doing something different just because he can. After all, someone with such an uncanny ability to make great music ought to be indulging himself in whatever genre he chooses, right? Well, maybe. One thing’s for sure: he’s good enough to do pretty much anything he fancies.

So good, in fact, that Neil Strauss found fit to remark in Sunday’s New York Times, “I have no doubt that if Mr. Adams set his mind to it, he could make a very good hip-hop album as well.” And that, of course, is precisely the problem. What exactly is the point of persisting in reinventing yourself as an artist if the result, however well executed it may be, simply doesn’t measure up to the near-perfection of previous efforts? Put in the simplest of terms, Mr. Adams immense talent is both a blessing and a curse. He’s adept at everything he tries but his best work has come firmly rooted in the alt-country styling that first catapulted him to critical and popular success. For instance, LloR N kcoR is good, but 2001’s Heartbreaker is painfully beautiful and, well, heart breaking; LloR N kcoR has an undeniably hip New York rock vibe but 2001’s Gold is an incredible groundswell of emotional and musical turmoil.

Rock N Roll (I think we can all agree that this reviewer has sufficiently indulged the artist’s pestilent pretentiousness with the employment — up until now — of that ridiculous other spelling) finds Mr. Adams ditching the country twang for a snarling brand of jagged rock. Long-time producer and collaborator Ethan Johns is gone, with James Barber taking over the producer’s chair. Mr. Barber. best known for his work in the worlds of hip-hop and Seattle grunge, does an admirable job of

molding an aggressive album with short, but sufficiently dense, arrangements.

But while it may be the case that this personnel change gives the new record a certain edge absent from previous releases, the collateral damage is almost devastating. Gone are the subtly nuanced performances that Mr. Johns was able to so deftly coax from his subject — stripping away layers of affectation and self-importance in the process. Instead, some of the tracks off Rock N Roll sound heavy-handed: “Note to Self: Don’t Die” is a terribly self-indulgent affair that would have been better off left on the floor of the editing room. Significant portions of the album, however, benefit immeasurably from this rough around the edges approach. Tracks like “Wish You Were Here” and “1974” swagger with the delightful arrogance of a Paul Westerberg record. And Rock N Roll has also got its share of real gems. The absolute mastery of melody displayed on “Luminol,” “Do Miss America,” and “This Is It” (Mr. Adams’s response to The Strokes’ Is This It) alone make this album a worthwhile listen. But at times it feels like Mr. Adams is simply too busy trying to show up The White Stripes — or whoever happens to be the retro-rock invasion band of the minute — to really focus on delivering an album that’s as good as he’s capable of making. Mr. Adams certainly has nothing to prove to anyone, least of all this reviewer. And art for art’s sake is certainly all fine and good. But it’s not a worthwhile legacy befitting someone with such tremendous talent. After all, why settle for a triumph when you can create a masterpiece? Long live Rock ‘n’ Roll but LloR N kcoR? — well, not so much.

Archived article by Mathew Gewolb