Ryan Adams and I don’t get along that well. He’s the guy I hate to love (or is it love to hate?). His former band, Whiskeytown, defined alt-country the same way Nirvana defined grunge; Adams’ first solo album, Heartbreaker, is a modern masterpiece of bourbon-tinged heartbreak and sleepless nights. And all this was before he turned 27. Yet, Adams’ live performances can be described as uneven and bi-polar at best and antagonistic and drunk at worst. He even spent a couple of years releasing total garbage, like the over-produced, swaggering Rock n’ Roll (with the “R” inverted in the title, no less) and the muddled, follow-up disaster, Love Is Hell.
But in the last year, Ryan Adams appears to have turned over a new leaf, (thankfully) regaining his composure, sincerity and credibility with just about everybody. No longer clad in skintight jeans and black eyeliner, Adams now sports a mountain-man beard and academic-looking glasses. Over are the egotistical album covers of yore (Cold Roses is the first solo album without his face on the cover) and this change is reflected in his latest effort, Jacksonville City Nights. The fantastic cover art of Jacksonville speaks volumes: It’s a glorious reference to the old-fashioned country music that he draws on so deeply.
It’s an incredible thing to see Ryan Adams return to his country roots (he was born and raised in the tiny town of Jacksonville, NC) after what this reviewer considers an extremely unsuccessful foray into what is best described as “gimmicky-glam cock rock.” After several disastrous efforts, beginning with the self-indulgent, pandering Gold, Adams finally had the right idea with the double-disk Cold Roses, which came out earlier this year as the first part of a yearlong trilogy (Jacksonville is the second installment). Although by no means perfect, Cold Roses signaled a welcome return to Adams’ trademark country croon, copious amounts of pedal steel, traditional balladry and simply rendered lyricism. As a double album, Cold Roses was all too guilty of containing mediocre filler. But at a lean 46 minutes, Jacksonville succeeds as the boiled-down, country essence of Cold Roses.
Maybe his recent success can be attributed to Adams’ collaborative band, The Cardinals, who provide a much needed bluegrass authenticity and twang in terms of the honky-tonk piano propulsion of “Trains” and the organic bass line in the somber closer, “Don’t Fail Me Now.” Jacksonville represents the kind of music Adams is most comfortable with; heartfelt singing, rollicking rhythms and narratives of heartbreak. The skilled musicians of The Cardinals can sometimes make the music a bit crowded and overwhelming (perhaps, for lack of a better word, even cheesy), but Adams embraces the full, ensemble sound of Jacksonville with considerable aplomb. This is the genre of traditional country to which Adams shows his loyalty. The sparse, heart-wrenching arrangements of Heartbreaker are gone and replaced by the noisy musicianship of The Cardinals.
“Silver Bullets” is a token low-key ballad, but here the musical proficiency of The Cardinals is a detriment to the power of Adams’ voice, which, in this case, would have been better suited to minimal accompaniment. The track achieves an orchestral grandeur rather than a hushed, intimate sadness.
Several other tracks also fall short. “For John,” the bluesy duet with Norah Jones, is a confusing change of pace. Her trademark smoky alto doesn’t harmonize all that well with Adams’ country croon and, as a result, the hushed gospel effect Adams was looking for feels somewhat unnatural. It certainly doesn’t achieve the same degree of success won by guest singers of the past (like the essential “Oh My Sweet Caroline” featuring the inimitable Emmylou Harris).
Jacksonville is Adams’ most self-reflective work since the quietly introspective Heartbreaker. His maturity is a revelation in “Peaceful Valley” and he seems to be looking inward as he warbles, “All my life I’ve been locked into the darkness / Trying to find a peaceful song / To sing when everything goes wrong.” It’s been too many years since Adams’ lyrics have been this poignantly rendered into a deceptively simple ballad.
Opener “A Kiss Before I Go” is a fairly straightforward, line dancing-esque song and though it lacks the personal narrative so characteristic of Adams, it redeems itself through the evocative instrumentals and Adams’ vocal acrobatics. “The End,” one of the many mid-tempo numbers on Jacksonville, is a melancholic homage to his hometown (“Jacksonville, how you burden in my soul / how you hold all my dreams captive / Jacksonville, how you play with my mind”). Adams’ songwriting talents come into play as he describes the relationship between his humble roots and the allure of his rock star fame. Although he’s always been reluctant to be typecast as a spokesperson for the contemporary, alt-country niche, Adams finally seems comfortable with the image he has created for himself.
Given Adams’ ridiculous prolificacy and maddening genre-hopping, it’s always a mystery as to what he’ll do next. But for now, he seems pretty comfortable sticking with his countrified, Americana roots. With Jacksonville, Adams puts to rest years of criticism and confidently looks to the future (“Into the future and out of the past,” he insists on “Trains”). Perhaps nothing will really ever compare to the magnificence of Heartbreaker, but Adams seems to be OK with that, because this album is pretty damn good, too.
Archived article by Natasha Pickowicz