Much has been made of the fact that Ryan Adams last released an album three years ago. While that’s true, the underlying implication that his pace has slowed is misleading. Sure, Adams once put out three LPs in one year, and managed an impressive 10 albums between 2000-08. But it’s not as if he set music aside after 2011’s Ashes & Fire to play vintage pinball machines and tweet cat photos. On the contrary, the musical polymath found time for that stuff while also running his Pax Am Studio in L.A., where Adams has kept busy recording and producing other artists (Fall Out Boy, Liz Phair and Jenny Lewis among them), and where he spent $100,000 making an album with Glyn Johns that he shelved because it was “slow adult shit,” Adams told NME last month.
Add it to the pile: By this point, Adams must have an archive of unreleased music as extensive as the catalog of material he has released. It’s a tantalizing prospect for fans of the former Whiskeytown leader, whose self-titled new album marks his 14th solo release. It’s more of a rock ’n’ roll album than the rootsy, understated Ashes & Fire, and while Adams includes a handful of the wrenching ballads he does so well, bold electric guitars hold sway on most of these 11 new songs.
He deploys a distinctive guitar tone on his rock ’n’ roll songs, dialing in a carefully calibrated mix of treble, grit and reverb that he has honed over the past dozen or so years. It’s in full force on the punchy riff that kicks off lead track “Gimme Something Good,” rings out like an alarm on “Stay With Me” and tumbles down in cascades on “Feels Like Fire,” a song that sets up brusque verses and then washes them away with a lush, sweeping hook on the chorus.
Adams inverts that approach on “Kim,” using an ebb-and-flow guitar part like a bellows to build a yearning zig-zag melody into the one-word refrain that echoes the song title. He trades the electric for an acoustic guitar on another ballad, “My Wrecking Ball.” It’s one of those devastating quiet songs that sounds as though Adams is singing from inside the wreckage of a broken heart. Those gutbucket songs are still what Adams does best, though he’s become a more consistent rock ’n’ roll songwriter since, well, Rock N Roll, his raucous 2003 album stepping away from the alt-country tag that had stuck to him since the Whiskeytown days.
Since then, when he hasn’t dipped back into country on albums like Easy Tiger in 2007 (or gone in a sci-fi metal direction on his 2010 concept album Orion), he’s either dabbled in rock, on 2008’s Cardinology, or emphasized ballads on Ashes & Fire. Ryan Adams strikes the best balance between them that he’s found yet.