Following the news that Ryan Adams is to release three – yes, three! – albums in 2019, we thought it only right that we take a ride back through his discography – offering our thoughts on the top ten records released across the tumultuous and esteemed career of arguably the best songwriter of our generation.
10. Ashes and Fire
by Joseph Purcell
The 2011 release of Ashes & Fire marked the cathartic end of an eventful few years in Ryan Adams’ career. After disbanding The Cardinals and flirting with retirement due to ongoing issues with Meniere’s Disease, his future had become uncertain. Burnt out from extensive touring, he’d turned his attention to poetry and found stability in a relationship that found him moving from New York to Los Angeles. A process that may well have saved his career and given fresh impetus to his work.
Ashes & Fire is Adams newly energised, with a fresh environment at the Sunset Sound Studios in Hollywood. It is an album of rediscovery for Adams, containing a variety of outstanding tracks that showcase the full dexterity of Adams’ true abilities. No more such than lead single, Lucky Now, which, in an outpouring of torment inspired by the untimely death of ex-Cardinals bandmate Chris Feinstein and his own well documented struggles with addiction, is one of the greatest songs he has ever penned. This in many ways encapsulates perfectly Adams’ abilities and his position as one of his generation’s greatest songwriters. His finest moments are painfully relatable, and his vulnerabilities and pain are oddly enchanting. The majestic Come Home, one of several collaborations with Norah Jones on the record, captures Adams at the beginning of a rebirth and a period of sustained excellence, and it’s one that’s continued since.
9. Rock n Roll
by Phil Scarisbrick
Having always been prolific in his musical output, Adams had his fourth album in three years ready in 2003. Unfortunately for Adams, his label – Lost Highway – refused to release it. As a result, he went away and spent the next fortnight creating something that was unlike anything he’d done before: a ‘rock’ album. Featuring then girlfriend, Parker Posey, Melissa Auf Der Maur and Green Day frontman, Billie Joe Armstrong – whose likeness Adams was strikingly similar to on the record’s artwork – the record is a distillation of his passion for heavier music, a reaction to Lost Highway’s inexplicable dismissal of Love is Hell, and a man pumped up, with maximum confidence in his own abilities.
Despite the mixed critical reaction at the time, Rock n Roll is a record that has aged well. Its unique standing in the Ryan Adams discography means it can often be overlooked when picking his best output. When you dig in though, you get forty-eight minutes of unadulterated fun, but with an emotional undertone that thematically links it to its initially discarded sister album. To use an analogy of the biggest TV show in the world at that time, Rock n Roll is – on the whole – Tony Soprano ‘breaking balls’ at the Bada Bing, whereas Love is Hell is him bearing his soul in Dr Melfi’s office. If you look closely at the former though, it is only a thinly-veiled disguise.
While it is hard to make an argument for it to be his best work, it certainly deserves its place on this list. Songs such as This Is It, Do Miss America, 1974 and the U2-evoking single, So Alive, offer the rock n roll, but there are still examples of the big emotional sucker punches that are Adams’ hallmark such as the title track and Anybody Wanna Take Me Home. Dismiss this record at your peril.
by Phil Scarisbrick
The ‘break-up’ album has become something of a genre of its own. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, Nick Cave and Joni Mitchell’s Blue are all linked by an emotional undertone that tries to deal with the despair, loneliness and even anger of a break-up. In recent years we’ve seen new voices add their own experiences to this tradition with Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago and Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black,. Ryan Adams has also delved into this subject previously with his wonderful debut album Heartbreaker, and in 2017 returned to the subject following the demise of his marriage to singer and actress Mandy Moore.
His 16th studio album opens with the ragged and brash jaunt of lead single, Do You Still Love Me?, through the emotional strain of Breakdown to the acoustic and sax driven melancholy of Tightrope, Adams bares his soul for our enjoyment. One can only imagine that for him this is catharsis in the only way he knows how.
7. Ryan Adams
by Phil Scarisbrick
Following the largely acoustic aesthetic of previous long player, Ashes & Fire, Adams’ eponymous fourteenth studio album saw him embrace his love of eighties rock. The result was an atmospheric, reverb-drenched guitar sound that documented both the loss of his grandmother, and the beginnings of his relationship breakdown with former wife: Mandy Moore. Recorded at his own PAXAM studio, Adams returned to the electric guitar as a creative tool, citing influences such as The Wipers, Husker Du and The Replacements.
The huge choruses of the likes of Gimme Something Good and Stay With Me link perfectly with songs like the lo-fi stomp Am I Safe and Springsteen-esque I Just Might, due to the album’s tight and focussed sound. Only acoustic number – album centrepiece My Wrecking Ball –breaks this mould, but works as a beautiful, delicate segue between sides A and B.
While not strictly speaking a ‘break-up album’ in the traditional sense, the sense of loss and despair that informs follow-up record – Prisoner, is just as prevalent here. Where that album deals with the aftermath though, this is Adams trying to make sense of the epicentre of his grief and loss. Despite edging towards the macabre though, it is never anything but a stunning collection of songs.
by Phil Scarisbrick
Released in September 2001, Gold entered a world that was still coming to terms with the September 11th attacks. In fact, the video for single New York, New York was filmed just four days before, with the World Trade Center clearly visible throughout. In this world of uncertainty, Gold‘s beauty shone through as it became (and remains) Adams’ best-selling album.
Treading a fine line, the record almost buckles under the weight of its influences, but it’s the variety of these influences that makes the album stand on its own rather becoming derivative. You can hear Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, The Smiths to name but a few. All of them though are channelled through Adams’ skewed psyche and world-class voice to create something truly beautiful.
by Dave Bertram
Following the alt-country fuelled Jacksonville City Nights and double-disc, Cold Roses, his third record of 2005, 29, embraced a simple recording process. Producer, Ethan Johns, would press record and Adams would start playing, with the idea to keep the material as fresh as possible- so much so that some of the tracks on the finished record are the first complete run-throughs. The heart-breaking piano ballad, Blue Sky Blues, is brilliant example of this spontaneity. It’s an intimate performance in your living room, not a track printed on record – it’s imperfections (the piano falls slightly out of time in places) give it a unique character that you just can’t replicate.
Clocking in at 48 minutes, 29 is a relative stroll around the block compared to much of his other work. But when you combine his voice, lyrics and arrangement, you’d be hard pushed to find him expose his emotions to this extent elsewhere.
Click here to read our review of 29 in full.
by Dave Bertram
Is Heartbreaker the desolate solo debut that saved a career? Absolutely. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Adams reminisced of the album being ‘little more than a last-ditch effort to save his dream of life as a musician’, and something that would provide him with the vehicle to ‘say goodbye to his career’.
As it happened, he was able to free himself from the creative shackles of his former band Whiskeytown to deliver a brutally honest, poignant and heart-breaking record with a hugely broad appeal. Heartbreaker finds him at possibly his most exposed, bearing all as he bemoans the loss of former lover Amy Lombardi and longs for somewhere quieter and more familiar.
3. Jacksonville City Nights
by Mark Jackson
“We’ve got like 40 more minutes. I can cut three more sides in 40 minutes,” urges an ardent Adams in Jacksonville City Nights’ accompanying documentary, September. “Why don’t I do the solo one or maybe I’ll do one with the band. Oh, you know what song we should do – [sings] ‘on my way to Jacksonville, I don’t like films, I like documentaries, but I wish they’d use more lesbians and robots’”. While luckily this song never made the cut, there is a beautiful randomness about this record and to date it’s as alt-country as Adams has ventured outside of his earlier Whiskeytown days. Jacksonville was the second of three albums released in 2005 by Adams – an output that would represent the mass of a careers work for many other artists. It is also the second of four albums in total released as Ryan Adams & the Cardinals – a name derived from Adams’ high school football team, and a partnership of musicians that inspired a creative flourish.
Cardinals’ pedal steel guitar player, Jon Graboff, reflects that “this is not the way people make records any more….It’s a lot of fun. If you make a mistake but the vibe is right, so be it.’ And there are mistakes throughout – however, the vibe is exactly right and despite the album’s overwhelming sentiment of failed relationships and drowning said loss in a bottle of whisky, it does sound like a lot of fun.
Jacksonville represents the sound of Adams’ writing music in the studio, playing demos to the band and then instantly recording the tracks. It’s as raw a sound as he has ever captured on record. No current major record label would allow Jacksonville to be released – and herein lies its unique beauty. It sounds nothing like anything you would hear from a modern, major artist (yes, Adams has had top 10 selling albums in both the US and the UK).
The mid 2000s were arguably Adams most prolific – certainly in terms of quick-fire physical releases. It also represents the height of his addictions to alcohol, and Class A narcotics. The sound of Jacksonville is most definitely wine and whisky soaked. Describing the writing process at this time, Adams stated: “If you sit around a guitar for anything longer that 30 minutes you might accidentally run into two chords that sound like a song. As soon as I get on to something like that I‘m like… I take it where it’s going and I feel really satisfied like, I did something today. Then I go out and get drunk. It’s great.”
Jacksonville City Nights isn’t then Adams at his most virtuoso. However, with a track-list that includes Dear John, Games, Silver Bullets, September and Withering Heights, it is an essential and captivating part of the Adams’ back catalogue. Adams has already announced that 2019 will be the year that he once again is going to release three albums in a year. If he can muster even half of the creative enlightenment that so enriched his three releases of 2005, fans will once more be in for a real treat.
2. Love is Hell
by Philip Moss
After 2001’s smash hit success with his biggest record to date – Gold – Ryan’s label, Lost Highway, had visions of him crossing over and becoming an alt-pop star. A move which could have seen immense financial gain in the short term, but stinted the cult legacy he’s gone onto build.
But on hearing the masters from the Love Is Hell sessions, the label rejected the record – deeming it not commercial enough and ‘too dark’. His response was to make the brash, excessive power-pop of Rock N Roll, and held the label to ransom: agreeing that Rock N Roll would only be handed over on the proviso that Love Is Hell would be put out too. Eventually, a deal was struck, and they would both be released on the same day. However, Love Is Hell would be pressed over two discs as separate EPs.
Over haunting pianos, opener, Political Scientist is vocally peak Ryan Adams. And while it may be an extreme departure from the country feel of Heartbreaker and Gold, it is the start of an album filled with superbly mature songwriting. Lyrically, it tackles crooked social politics, small town anger and the melancholic haze of falling in and out of love ala Springsteen’s magnus opus, Darkness On The Edge of Town. But musically, it carries a hazy sheen that evokes Johnny Marr’s musical peaks from Hatful of Hollow. This House Is Not For Sale is musically colourful, but – again – it’s in stark contrast to the heavy lyricism. While Shadowlands, the record’s centrepiece, prays for rain, as Ryan seemingly looks to flood away the difficulties he endured during the record’s songwriting process.
Love is Hell is a startlingly personal collection of songs that allows us to enter into his diary of romantic bewilderment and irremediable loneliness, and is arguably the most explicit example of why Ryan Adams is the finest songwriter of our generation.
1. Cold Roses
by Philip Moss, Joseph Purcell and Phil Scarisbrick
While his previous records all had a youthful, dream-like take on the subjects that he took on, Cold Roses felt like his first truly ‘grown up’ record. Our first introduction to this new Adams is Magnolia Mountain. A six-minute, alt-country rock behemoth that matches its lyrical maturity with a soundtrack that keeps growing and growing. The lush, vivid imagery that has always been a hallmark of his work is here in spades, giving the album the epic opener that it deserves.
This bittersweet love song typifies everything that is great about Ryan Adams. He has a knack of taking imagery like the moon and stars that would be cliched in most artists’ hands, and turn them into something heartfelt and unique.
Here, Adams sings of the maple tree that grew in the front garden of his love. When she moved away, they cut it down so he used the wood to build a boat and christen it in her name. He is clearly conflicted about his love as he sings – ‘If loving you’s a dream that’s not worth having/why do I dream of you?’. The imagery of the tree at the front of the house is similar to the one in Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman. There the tree represented happiness, and its cutting down being the end of happiness. Here the themes are very similar, although Miller’s sycamore tree is replaced by a maple.
What starts off as beautiful, falsetto vocals sung over a finger-picked acoustic guitar makes way for exacerbated wails over a full band, as the song’s narrative comes to a head. Adams connects with his fans through opening his heart to them. He puts his most intimate thoughts and fears on display. Here that vulnerability is like an open wound, and we go on that journey with him.
“When I say L.U.V., you better believe me L.U.V., now give me a beer” states the now sober Ryan Adams before a count into another rock/blues stomp akin to Heartbreaker track, Shakedown on 9th Street. This song is just downright fun, even though the lyrics feel reflective, lamenting life choices and an apparent failure in a relationship.
Let it Ride-
The propulsive country of Let it Ride announces the thrust of side two of Cold Roses. After the gentle lullaby of Easy Plateau, Let it Ride is attention grabbing in a different way – with a charming guitar hook and Adams’ exquisite delivery. A track full of bold country swagger and enticing rhythm, it is undoubtedly the most crossover track on Cold Roses and a definite live favourite!
Despite being an excellent guitar player, such is Ryan’s unbelievable gift at pairing heart achingly beautiful lyrics with timeless vocal melodies that his axe work often goes under the radar. But nestled in the middle of Cold Roses’ second disc is perhaps his one of the greatest melodies he’s ever concocted – the guitar hook that anchors its title track. However, unlike the unhinged trashy guitars found on predecessor, Rock n Roll, Cold Roses carries a classically finessed restraint.
Much credit must also go to producer, Tom Schick, as his glorious mix squeezes every inch out of tracking session that took place at New York’s Loho Studios – as Adams and fellow guitarist, JP Bowerstock, parts pan left and right.
If I Am A Stranger-
A song that finds itself on numerous Ryan Adams releases in different guises, If I am a Stranger is a song of doubt, secrets and love. The live recording of the track, found on the stupendous Live At Carnegie Hall, floats by like an effortless centrepiece, full of angst and strife, while the studio recording – a more country infused affair – is no less poignant.
Throughout the track, the narrator searches for love in a tumultuous battle of self-doubt, questioning their ability to fulfil and support the one they love. Rooted at the centre of the track is the recurring insecurity – ‘I will try and be there for you, what If I can’t’. If I am a Stranger is Ryan Adams at his peak: poignant lyrics caressed and interspersed by a vocal warmth beyond many of his contemporaries. And with lyrics to which the listener can easily relate- backed by a gorgeous instrumental landscape, exhibiting perfectly Ryan Adams’ position as a contemporary musical treasure.