It’s Only Rock, Country, Punk, Alternative…?
Ryan Adams, among fans of rock/folk singer/songwriters, is often considered a great artist. Someone who over the course of two decades -first as a member of Whiskeytown and then on his own- has consistently exited fans with, and intrigued critics with his output. Paradoxically, however, with each successive, quality release, critics and fans have found new ways to ask a weirdly insulting question, which goes something like this, “is this the album where Adams stops messing around, buckles down, and makes a masterpiece?” With his most recent album, Prisoner, bringing his output up to 19 studio albums it feels, a bit, strange to ask for more, and yet the question has been around for so long that it feels almost equally weird not to ask it.
Much of this has to do with the sound and furor surrounding Adams’ initial output from 2000 through to about 2005. Though, to be fair, Adams has been so prolific in his output that you could extend that endpoint into the 2010s if you wanted to. Still, sticking to the five year time span between 2000 and 2005 paints a vivid enough picture. Without going into exhaustive detail a quick look at Ryan Adams the public figure/rockstar from that time period seems to portray an artist trying to balance artistic creativity with oncoming commercial success. In the span of five years Adams released six studio albums, each album capable of standing on it’s own, as a separate and distinct piece of art. By the end of this album run Adams had released albums ranging from traditional country to more rocking “commercial efforts.” Add to this the fact that Adams’ label reportedly prevented him from releasing several other, additional, albums in that time frame and you have an artist who packed a career’s worth of twists and turns into just half a decade.
Fans of music, especially those who enjoy looking at the big picture, like to find and codify an artist’s central sound. The sound that becomes the shorthand for an artist’s overall career (think Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” or Prince’s “Purple Rain”). Such songs or albums come to be seen as monuments to an artist’s greatness, as well as convenient shorthand explanations for new listeners. All wrapped up in a convenient package. By having such a diverse catalog, plus releasing it in such a short amount of time, Adams inadvertently muddied the proverbial waters of his catalog. Making it hard for a fan, or critic, to pin down just what the Ryan Adams sound was exactly.
Album: Rock N Roll
Release Date: November 4, 2003
This Is It
Wish You Were Here
She’s Lost Total Control
Note To Self: Don’t Die
Rock N Roll
Anybody Wanna Take Me Home
Do Miss America
The Drugs Not Working
Nowhere is this more apparent than on 2003’s Rock N Roll (apostrophe not included, because, apparently, Adams dislikes correct punctuation). By 2003 Adams had already gone from alt country wiz kid to rock’s critical darling of the moment. His first two solo albums, 2000’s Heartbreaker and 2001’s Gold, had been met with budding enthusiasm, and anticipation was building for his next effort. However, after having multiple efforts turned down by his label Adams decided to take his sound in a different, and many would say jolting direction.
Where his previous albums had stuck relatively closely to the traditional singer/songwriter approach (i.e. Gram Parsons) Rock N Roll saw Adams favoring a heavier, more propulsive sound. Rock N Roll is undeniably Adams, but he’s augmented his sound with more effects, backing players, and electricity.
The album Opener “This Is It” is a mid tempo rocker with the snare drum featuring prominently in the mix. Taken on its own merits the song doesn’t seem to differ greatly from Adams’ previous work, however coming on the heels of Heartbreaker and Gold it’s certainly a change of pace. The previous two albums had faster tempo moments, but what sets “This Is It” apart is that it’s merely a taste of what is to come. “Shallow”, the albums second track, features the singer howling (comparatively speaking) “I got to know!” over and over. The drums are, again, featured very prominently. Something that holds true for most of the album.
I won’t claim to be able to identify production or instrumentation affects, but to my ears Rock N Roll (the album proper) sounds deep, and loud, while retaining a clear, clean, sound. This balancing act sets it apart from other rock albums of the time, which often sound loud, or clean. Velvet Revolver’s Libertad comes to mind as an album where the sound is pushed up, while at the same time sounding somewhat muddled. It doesn’t diminish Libertad, but it’s not a trait that Rock N Roll shares. Somehow Adams and company manage to have their cake and eat it too. The production, also, serves to tie the songs together into a cohesive whole. The quieter moments share something with those songs that are more rocking. The affect being that the album’s 14 tracks feel as if they go by in the blink of an eye.
Strangely this ability of Adams’, to be able to fully realize distinct albums across multiple stylings may be what hamstrings the listener who tries to find a unified Ryan Adams sound monument. To the ears and tastes of his fans he weirdly becomes a victim of his own, prolific, success. Heartbreaker and Gold set Adams up as a certain type of artist. Listeners attached a certain expectations to him accordingly. Then when he veered, slightly, from the expected course it took awhile for fans to recalibrate their expectations. Couple that with productivity and Adams soon developed a reputation for zigging when fans, as well as critics, expected him to zag. iTunes categorizes Heartbreaker as country; Gold as rock; and Rock N Roll as Alternative & Punk.