Ryan Adams: 29

WITH ALMOST NO INFORMATION supplied by Adams, the advance publicity for 29 — the rootsy crooner’s third album this year — amounted to a hotchpotch of internet rumour. It was claimed there were nine songs at nine minutes apiece, and the record was rumoured to be either a muted footnote to a remarkably productive year, or a contender for album of the year. Adams offered a single comment to the effect that each track (there are indeed nine, but only ‘Strawberry Wine’ approaches nine minutes) summarises one year of his 20s.

What’s inarguable is that 29 is a different kettle of moonshine from the country-rocking Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights, which appeared in May and September respectively. It is a distinctly Decemberish release, ruminative and unshowy. Adams’s backing band, the Cardinals, have sat this one out, so it’s mostly one guitar and a parched voice. The intimacy harks back to the album deemed to be his masterpiece, 2000’s Heartbreaker. It also has an unavoidable soporific effect toward the middle, which Adams must have anticipated during the sequencing, as the flamenco-indebted seventh track, ‘The Sadness’, rips away the cobwebs just in time.

Now 31, the North Carolina-born singer takes his concept and runs with it, distilling nine years of unhappiness into 45 drizzly minutes. Bearing in mind that he is alt-country’s Pete Doherty — answerable to nobody but himself (he has been known to pay hecklers to leave gigs) — it’s no surprise that Adams’s 20s are portrayed here as tempestuous, even terrible. According to ‘Nightbirds’, they were defined by “empty hearts, empty moments“, which is emphasised by the sound of waves crashing over his head as his voice fades.

Adams is a dedicated wallower in self pity, threatening on the elegiac, pianoled ‘Blue Sky Blues’ to “lose what’s left of my mind” if a certain “you” doesn’t give him the attention he feels he deserves. ‘Carolina Rain,’ a relatively zippy pedalsteel affair, evokes the suburban south of America with a plain-spokenness comparable to Bruce Springsteen’s depictions of the north-east, and is a stand-out. Taken as a whole, the nine tracks sound, as intended, like a line being drawn under a period in his life. Committed Adams-heads will love it; others will wonder why he commands such loyalty.

© Caroline SullivanThe Guardian, 2 December 2005

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