Tom Petty might have put a new record out in July, but in listening to Ryan Adams’ newest, self-titled album, you’d get the impression that Petty came out with another one.
And that’s no problem. Country/rock songwriter Adams crafts a series of touching, shimmering and swaggering songs on his 14th album in 15 years and his third release of new music this year alone.
Prior to listening to this record, I knew very little about Adams. I’d known that he had a noted feud with former Chicago Sun-Times music critic Jim DeRogatis (DeRogatis even posted Adams’s scathing voicemail from it online) and that he’d even had bad blood with one of my favorite bands, Wilco. He also has Hollywood connections, since he’s married to actress Mandy Moore.
So I’d always been reluctant to listen to Adams, but this album proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that I should have started a long time ago. In an inverse of the trend that recent albums by Petty, U2 and Robert Plant have set — wherein older acts have been able to touch back on the things that made them great but still restyle their sound in some noticeable ways — here, a younger rocker makes a classic, old-school rock ‘n’ roll album worthy of their catalogs.
Opener “Gimme Something Good” starts with a cutting, gritty riff evoking Keith Richards. It feels like a song that’s full of purpose and sets the tone well for the rest of the record.
The next song, “Kim,” finds Adams drawing on his Hollywood ties, as Johnny Depp plays guitar on it. But it doesn’t need Depp’s name behind it to be memorable.
“Kim” is one of the finest songs on the album. It proves to be a gorgeous, nostalgic treatise about a former flame.
Pretty acoustic ballad “Am I Safe” has such a “Rumours-era” Fleetwood Mac sound that it makes me wonder why we’re not hearing Stevie Nicks singing along. And Adams’ smooth, vulnerable voice even reminds me of Lindsey Buckingham’s wonderful howl.
But the song “My Wrecking Ball” proves to be an even better acoustic ballad. It’s a clear shot back to Bruce Springsteen’s acoustic, Woody Guthrie-inspired numbers, both lyrically and musically.
“Feels Like Fire” is almost undoubtedly the album’s standout. It’s an exquisitely gorgeous, moving and romantic commentary on an ex-lover. While “Kim” felt like an elegiac, longing memory of unrequited love, “Feels Like Fire” feels like a celebratory tribute and reminiscence.
This kind of poetry, combined with the melodic and full backing instrumentation (courtesy of more beautiful piano from Benmont Tench and vocals from Depp), makes this one of the songs of the year.
If “My Wrecking Ball” came out of The Boss’ circa 1980 minimalistic acoustic style, then “I Just Might” definitely came out of a more prototypical Springsteen ’80s rocker. Not only does the gritty, spare and driving riff at the core of the song resemble a Bruce riff, but the lyrics also touch on classic Springsteen.
Adams is also known for being something of a vocal chameleon, and he contorts his voice here to mirror that legendary husky Jersey baritone.
Adams slows things down to close out the album with a pair of more upbeat, lush ballads that approximate his alt-country beginnings with their fighting, yet gentle lyrics.
While some would criticize this album for not having the most original style and drawing too much on the past for its sound, I think Adams pulls it off perfectly. The songs are strong, the lyrics are somber and emotive, and the production sets a crisp tone and direction throughout the record.
I used to question why I would ever want to listen to Ryan Adams. After having listened to this stellar album, I question myself for not having listened to him sooner.