Recording of February 2009: Cardinology

RYAN ADAMS: Cardinology
Lost Highway B0012195-02 (CD, LP, 7" EP). 2008. Tom Schick, prod., eng.; Noah Goldstein, asst. eng. AAD?, AAA. TT: 40:29
Performance ****
Sonics ****

For many years, music fan, singer-songwriter, and cantankerous artiste Ryan Adams paid homage to what felt right. With his first band of note, the Raleigh, North Carolina–based Whiskeytown, he played a twangy fiddle-and-pedal-steel country-rock birthed on the altar of punk rock and liberally raised with respect for the songwriting and soul of performers like Gram Parsons and Jagger-Richards. Slowly but surely, Adams, founding guitarist Phil Wandscher, and coleader Caitlin Cary began to separate, as Adams came into his own as a songwriter and frontman who could hold audiences in the thrall of his presence, and the guts and majesty of his musical vision.

That's not to say that there weren't a lot of rough spots along the way. Once, back when this magazine was owned by Larry Archibald and John Atkinson, I ventured into a club in the largest city in the Land of Enchantment to see Whiskeytown, who were then signed to Geffen Records, and were perhaps the great hope of the then briefly ascendant alt-country subgenre.

I'd seen the band three times before, but on this night Mr. Adams decided to incite a Destry Rides Again Old West bar fight. Never gracious or secure about criticism, he decided to launch a bottle at a mouthy audience member. This was followed by a colossal WWF stage leap into the crowd. Ensconced in a back booth with an ex-girlfriend who thought the entire experience dodgy to begin with, I eagerly strained to see the action. As the mayhem spread toward us, she rightfully whispered with a distinct edge, "We're leaving!" Adams subsequently incited battles with critics, scraped against a host of personal demons, and gained a well-deserved reputation for being difficult and reclusive.

Artistically, he's been up and down. When, fresh from an indie triumph in Bloodshot's Heatbreaker (2000) and that album's moody single, "Come Pick Me Up," Adams unleashed the sticky, major-label solo album Gold (2001), his high-gloss valentine to New York City, he hit the artistic trifecta: He'd mastered the art of being a bandleader whose A-level material magically attracts praise from elders and top-drawer sideman talent; he'd honed his convincing, sexboy frontmannerisms; and he'd strutted a pack of unassailably well-arranged, hook-laden, lyrically tight. Regardless of what you think of its slick, pushy production values, Gold's hooks are breathtaking, and every bit as affecting when Adams plays them acoustically. Songs like the falsetto-led midtempo/ballad "When the Stars Go Blue," or the following track, the sad "Nobody Girl," suddenly made Adams the rock/roots songwriting whiz kid du jour.

The songwriting afterglow of Gold (and some of its leftover tracks) illuminated the next album, Demolition. Then came the Adams avalanche: first Rock N Roll, then the two-disc Love Is Hell, both in 2003. As they had with Springsteen's The River, one of the obvious antecedents of this flurry of creativity, questions swirled about what might have happened had someone with ears and guts told Adams to cut it all down to a single knockout record. Since then, the singer-songwriter has wisely slowed his output and begun to self-edit, releasing the much more finished Cold Roses and Jackosnville City Nights (2005), the lesser 29 (2006), and another songwriting upswing, Easy Tiger (2007).

Which brings us to Cardinology. Adams' lyrics, now fully obsessed with picking his love scabs, sound somehow wiser and more resonant, although his habit of ending every tune with a repeated chorus line needs to be broken. Adams' dreamy, riffy retro-rock can feel tossed-off and formulaic, but it's steadier here, if more predictable. Adams' idea now seems to be richness rather than surprise: the gospel according to Ryan, but at lower levels of volume and urgency. Ethel, our boy is growing up. His obvious influences, such as Parsons and U2, have never been used as well. And while many of the songwriting turns are familiar to longtime Adams fans—"Go Easy" could easily have appeared on any record since Gold—he's still capable of writing a transcendent tune like this album's strongest, "Crossed Out Name," whose strummed acoustic guitars power a U2-flavored rumination. "Let Us Down Easy," which adds a Wurlitzer to the mix, is another controlled but satisfying mix of electric guitars. And "Magick," Adams' fun tribute to chord-bashing riff rock like "Highway to Hell" or "All Right Now," is a ball.

Adams' band, the Cardinals, includes guitarist Neal Casal and pedal-steel player Jon Graboff. Throughout Cardinology, they play impeccably like the pros they are, wrapping a low-key yet atmospheric vibe around tunes like the pedal-steel–haunted "Natural Ghost." And if his songwriting has settled into a groove, Adams' vocal skills have continued to grow, as evidenced by his going Bono on "Cobwebs."

Cardinology has been released on both CD and red vinyl, and on both formats the sound is full-blooded and immediate. The LP has a more spacious and open soundstage, with a breathier top end, while the CD, not surprisingly, is brighter and more forward. Also included is a 7" EP with two more songs, "Heavy Orange" and "Asteroid."

Artists settling into mid-career can sometimes be less than pretty, but with this album, Adams has righted his often erratic ship with a collection of songs that embody the grace and beauty he's always aspired to create.—Robert Baird

Allen Fant's picture

This was my 1st introduction to RA. I own all of his CDs now.