Ryan Adams & The Cardinals Cardinology

[Lost Highway; 2008]

Styles: alt-pop, Americana, classic rock, flirting with adulthood
Others: Whiskeytown, Joe Henry, Sky Blue Sky-era Wilco

Being a devout fan of sometimes-batshit songwriter Ryan Adams is a task not without its share of headaches. One second he's a dangerous, dirty, angry artist about to fall off the edge; the next he's sober, sturdy, and as comforting as a bearded older brother. (Still dirty, but more likely to be grouped with one of those John Mayer or Brett Dennen prettyboy types than, say, David Berman or J. Tillman.) Adams writes a lot of songs, assembles at least one record per year, and does his best to give each release an identity of its own -- it's a hard-earned reputation matched by very few this decade. That said, not all of his albums are great. Some, like Heartbreaker, Cold Roses, Stranger's Almanac, and last year's instantly loveable Easy Tiger, are damn near classics of their time and genre, but 2002's Demolition and the following year's Rock N Roll -- both half-serious releases -- bring to question the man's ability and, more importantly, his consistency. Everything else he's properly released, including his other Whiskeytown records, falls somewhere in between those two extremes. Adams' latest, Cardinology, an album featuring both remarkable and embarrassingly shoddy writing, lands smack dab in the middle of the pack when taken as a whole.

Crafted, written, seasoned, maybe a touch of beentheredonethat, Cardinology, in theory, is a more developed version of last year's Easy Tiger, an album that at times felt a little too lean in the instrumentation department (though otherwise almost perfect as far as pre-adult poppy Americana goes). However, Easy Tiger is the prettier of these sleepy sisters, if only for its better hooks and stronger tracklist. For starters, Cardinology's "Cobwebs" is Adams' most impossible listen since "Jesus (Don't Touch My Baby)," even for longtime fans who enjoy the sometimes embarrassingly brooding Love Is Hell. Adams, a still-young man regarded as one of the best songwriters of his time, endlessly singing the lyrics "Will you confuse my love for the cobwebs?" marks the low point of his career. It's just plain bad, something that, like the man or not, can't be said about any of his previous properly-released work.

The other five songs that join "Cobwebs" on Cardinology's first half are of high quality: there's opener "Born Into a Light," a soulful Cold Roses-worthy slow rocker that burns like an early-morning hangover of memories; there's "Go Easy," a formulaic -- but affective -- dose of pseudo-Southern pop that could've been on Easy Tiger; there's "Fix It," a song that appears to be Adams' attempt to meld blues-y Americana soul with an All That You Can't Leave Behind-styled hook; there's "Magick," a loveable (and cocksure) rocker not at all unlike previous Adams' songs "This Is It" and "Halloweenhead" in their instant bravado and accessibility; and, lastly, there's the stunning "Let Us Down Easy," which, as most of Adams' best songs do, evokes a classic, timeless feel of breezy, soulful, thoughtful American songwriter rock. Spider phlegm aside, the first six tunes make for his best single side since Side Three of Cold Roses. Both "Let Us Down Easy" and "Born Into a Light" are two of Adams' best tunes; the combo alone should solidify a purchase for fans.

But then there's the back half of this oh-so-ugly-covered record. (What is that horrendous electric blue design supposed to be anyhow? A peace sign with a cardinal head? Gimme a fuckin' break!). These six songs, though not necessarily bad, overshadow the record's promising start with their "Dad Rock" tendencies and -- at least for Adams -- overly-pondered arrangements and playing. "Crossed Out Name," which kicks off Side Two, is the album's most effectively underbaked song -- a treat, really, amongst this batch of tunes Adams' recorded with his band, The Cardinals. Good enough, but then comes the downright awful "Natural Ghost," which at first sounds like a late-era Counting Crows stinker before fumbling into the most embarrassing hook since a little tune called "Cobwebs." The playing here, and everywhere on Cardinology, is very good, very clean, and very goddamn sober, surely -- but hey, lookit, this is the snaggletoothed, Black Flag-tatooed, cocky-lipped country bear who once recorded crass punk records as The Finger -- bright eyes and lover boy looks be damned. Again, being an Adams fan takes patience and pints of tolerance for restless artistry.

The new attention to cleanly produced and perfectly played and arranged backdrops function as both a blessing and a curse. The songs that do work, work that much better; the ones that could've been saved by charming details, top-shelf vocals, or Adams' lyrics end up sounding too safe, too easy. Too clean. Too damn adult and too damn vanilla. "Sink Ships," another back-half stinkfest, will have ears skipping back to track one, back to that killer first half. The clear standout on the back half is "Like Yesterday," which, if we also count "Crossed Out Name" and most of the first half, rounds up what could've been a well-written -- albeit overly crafted -- EP-of-the-Fucking-Decade candidate. Hell, throw in the sparse closer, "Stop," for shits and giggles and we have a mini-album that could rank amongst the man's best, soberness and all.

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