This review originally appeared on The Arts Desk.
I suspect that, a good few years after a dodgy couple of albums, Ryan Adams has reached a stage in his career where they’re all going to be dubbed a return to form. I seem to remember writing something similar about 2011’s Ashes and Fire – but here we are, three years on, and I couldn’t tell you the last time I listened to it (I should probably mention that I’m writing this not just as a critic, but as somebody with his artwork tattooed on my arm).
There are a few things about Ryan Adams – the album, not the man – that make the story. Firstly there’s that self-titled thing, which will always be interpreted as some sort of definitive mission statement, particularly if it comes 14 years and as many albums into a solo career. Then there’s the three-year gap between this album and the last one, unprecedented in the Adams timeline. There has been the career-threatening illness, the marriage, the throwaway punk records and, if you believe everything you read, an entire album that was discarded for being “too sad”. This finished product is hardly a barrel of laughs (relatively upbeat album opener “Gimme Something Good”, all Keith Richards strut and Tom Petty chord progressions, features the lyrics “I can’t talk, I got nothing to say, it’s like there’s no tomorrow, barely yesterday”) and it’s hard to get your head around, especially since all the signs point to a more adjusted Adams.
But then, I’ve always liked the sad songs best and there are plenty here to choose from: “Kim”, with its autumnal melody and lyrics of – what else? – love and loss, sung like they’re being wrung straight from a battered heart; and the upbeat, pretty melodies backed in turn by hope and hopelessness of “Tired of Giving Up” and “Let Go”. The gorgeous “My Wrecking Ball”, a song with all the restraint and the longing of “Avenues” by Adams’ old band Whiskeytown and maybe a little – yes, let’s go there – Nebraska-era Springsteen.
Unlike its predecessor, however, Ryan Adams also provides a showcase for Adams’ ability to craft a straight-up rocker: “Trouble” is one of his finest examples. Although a couple of plodding rockers cause the album to sag in the middle there are gems, if you listen out for them: “Feels Like Fire” would be an easy-to-dismiss sub-par Springsteen right down to the title, were it not for that driving beat and infectious chorus.
A return to form? Well, I wouldn’t bet against it, though I’d ask you to check in again in three years. But there’s enough here to soundtrack my autumn, and hopefully yours too.