I'd be hard-pressed to deny that any one artist has had more influence on my life than Ryan Adams. His music provided the greater part of the soundtrack to my most lasting relationships, and the lingering regrets that emanate therefrom. His songs manage to tap into some very complex emotional territory and invoke empathy if not always sympathy from his fiercely loyal fanbase. Perhaps it's his delivery; perhaps it's ability to give magnificent weight to microcosmic situations via gentle lyrical embroidery, as he does with fan favorites "Come Pick Me Up" and "Anybody Wanna Take Me Home."
In the past year or so--since the release of 29, the understated finale to his 2005 trilogy of albums--my infatuation with Ryan Adams has cooled. Rather, I've expanded my horizons at a financially unhealthy pace. I estimate that I've doubled my music collection over the past year; my CD tower has nearly reached its capacity. But it's all been beneficial. My ability to rationalize and contextualize music has grown by leaps and bounds since I decided to delete "Ryan Adams" from my iTunes Library search bar.
I didn't swear off Ryan. He was still in my rotation, amidst all the others. I simply took a step back. I travelled to Scotland, eschewing a number of the Cardinals' Southeastern tour stops in the process. I became less of an apologist, unafraid to discredit a poor song or stupid lyric. Less a fanboy, more a fan I became.
And now I find myself here, seated at my trusty work-station, the case to Ryan's newest disc, Easy Tiger, resting haphazardly over the edge of my desk. Is this a metaphor? Perhaps symbolizing the critical situation of my tepid relationship with David Ryan Adams, my once-musical savior?!?!?
Nah. That's just where it is.
And that's exactly how I tried to approach this album. Completely sans implications; no shining fanboy reaction, no neutralizing sour review. Just gonna listen to the music, knowing what I know about Ryan Adams and his, I quote, sweet disposition.
My conclusion: The album is solid. Not his best; not his worst. And that'll do nicely. These days, I'm always a bit nervous of what kind of stunt Ryan will pull next. We all heard the rap albums. Funny...but kinda lame. Crazy outfits, an unwieldy website, oddball online messages. Is this how people will remember Ryan?
Hopefully not. And luckily, Easy Tiger reminds us all that Ryan Adams...rapper, fashionista, socialite, skater punk, firebrand that he is...is a goddamn fantastic songwriter. "Goodnight Rose", a recent live staple, is a grand and blasting introduction to the disc, although the cluttered second verse is the kind of imperfection that seems a bit forced rather than endearing. The song pans out well, and serves as sturdy bedrock on which the remainder of Easy Tiger is constructed. "Two" (ironically the album's first single) is a structual redux of Gold's "Harder Now That It's Over." Sheryl Crow's backing vocals are mercifully negligible, but it still kinda seems like something you'd hear at a grocery store. "I'm fractured/from the fall(CHHK)Price check, Spaghettios."
"Halloweenhead" is a song you'll either love or hate. It's one of those stunts to which I referred earlier. It's a goofball song, complete with "guitar solo!" shredtroduction and lyrical references to tricks, treats, candy bags and punks in drag. The song is catchy as a fuck, but I think it belongs on the b-side of a single, not batting clean-up on an otherwise refreshingly genuine album.
But redemption is the word, as the next trio of songs compensate for the antics of their predecessor. "Oh My God, Whatever, Etc.", although stupidly titled, is the kind of song Ryan does so well. Rife with self-pity, sorrow, but gleaming faintly with optimism: "The light of the moon leads the way towards the morning." On to "Tears of Gold," a countrified waltz that wouldn't have been out of place on Jacksonville City Nights, with its references to graves and food on tables, all sweetly woven in pedal steel, courtesy of Jon Graboff. "The Sun Also Sets" will be the chick-pick of the album, and rightfully so. The refrain of "There it is" is the kind of Ryan lyric that can make his songs so painfully fucking gorgeous...like "I've had a pretty hard life" from "Easy Hearts", like "Lover, why do you leave" from the song of the same name, or "You don't do me right/When the rope gets tight" from "Don't Fail Me Now." Lines like these pour over your whole body like a gush of hot wind.
The next track, "Off Broadway," was given new life, having previously appeared on the unreleased Destroyer, along with "These Girls," formerly known as "Hey There Miss Lovely." I must say I prefer the earlier version of both. "Off Broadway" is spread too thin, trying to stretch out over the entire band. I'd say the song would have been best suited as a solo acoustic venture. "These Girls" is presented as such, but the lyrical changes from its earlier incarnation are a step back. The wonderful line "I'm the plastic three-inch armies you destroy," from the original is now "I'm the matchbox cars you buy and burn in your backyard," which seems trite and far less charming. But, of course, it's nice that such well-written songs receive a proper release.
These songs sandwich three more solid tracks. "Pearls on a String" is a mandolin/banjo vehicle that's as affecting as a summer evening hayride. "Rip Off" is my personal favorite--it's an earnest tune lyrically, with an equally strong piano chord progression. It's well-placed too, providing some depth at the tail-end of the album.
The sweet closer, "I Taught Myself How To Grow Old," is beautifully Neil Young; but unfortunately marred ever so slightly by a poor harmonica take. But the lyrics are a perfect example of the microcosmic situation stuff I was talking about earlier. Ryan's delivery is meek and heart-wrenching, his lyrics hopelessly accepting:
"Most of the time I got nothing to say
When I do it's nothing and nobody's there to listen anyway
I know I'm probably better off this way
I just listen to the voices on the TV 'til I'm tired
My eyes grow heavy and I fade away."
--"I Taught Myself How To Grow Old"
And so ends Easy Tiger. Again, the album is solid. It won't go down as an all-time great, or even Ryan's flagship effort. But, to be sure, it's not a stunt. It's unmistakably genuine, despite "Halloweenhead." And even that song retains some shreds of dignity. While Easy Tiger is a safe album, it's perhaps the album Ryan Adams needed to make. No gimmicks, no unsubtle tributes, no shtick. Even if it's just a swirling of elements from all his past albums, Easy Tiger isn't Dylan-esque, Dead-esque, Smiths-esque...it's Ryan Adams making a Ryan Adams album. And it's pretty damned good.
Synopsis: Easy Tiger sometimes borders on adult contemporary, but altogether it's a powerful album by a songwriter who is still writing with unwavering passion. The songs can be as vivid as a mountain range at sunset or as delicate as summer raindrops sliding down a window pane. Anyone outside of active Ryan-haters will find it enjoyable.
Standout Tracks: Tears of Gold, The Sun Also Sets, Rip Off
Good For: Watching summer evenings melt into a warm, starry night.
Buy It: Go ahead and pick this one up, but if you're stubborn you're likely to find it in the used bin down the line.
Packaging: Not great really. A phoned in cover, although the liner notes aren't half bad. There's a nice fold-out picture spread. The CD itself looks very amateurish, and does little to complement the music.
OVERALL GRADE: *
*(On a scale of 5)