Ryan Adams: Rock’n’Roll (Lost Highway) ****

Fourth solo album from erstwhile alt country poster-boy. Recorded in 13 days in New York with James Barber, aka Mr Courtney Love.

FOR SOMEONE who makes such ostensibly straightahead, uncontentious music, Ryan Adams doesn’t half get folks’ goat. Three years ago, his solo debut Heartbreaker alerted the world to a momentous talent, refracting an autobiographical tale of broken-down love through New York City’s poetic backdrop. It evinced extravagant – yet reasonable – parallels with ’66-era Bob Dylan, or maybe Bruce Springsteen had he been weaned on The Smiths.

Since then, however, he’s been booed from a London stage after berating the audience for talking too loud, become involved in a handbags-at-dawn verbal spat with Jack White, and attracted no small amount of critical opprobrium, mainly as a consequence of how unlike Heartbreaker his subsequent records have been.

Throughout this time, as this star has risen via Gap ads and the mandatory liaison with Winona Ryder, plus some serious unit-shifting, he’s generally given the impression of a man with so many chips on his shoulder he could secure an endorsement from Golden Wonder. Following the release of 2001 ‘s über-glossy GoldMOJO quipped to the effect that far from being the new Dylan, Adams wasn’t even the new Steve Forbert. Those who still wince at the memory of that bloodless record might consider such a remark a little harsh on Steve Forbert.

Now, two years on from Gold and 12 months since the disingenuous stop-gap release Demolition, Adams returns with an album of gob-smacking wilfulness. One can only imagine the rictus grins on the faces of Adams’ patrons at Lost Highway, the corporate-affiliated alt country stable, when their blush-faced prodigal son delivers what amounts to a karaoke rock album, with at least one foot mired in the sonically arid, irredeemable ’80s.

The clues were out there. Adams was born, as track three here avers, in 1974. He’s admitted to losing his teen punk rock cherry to the Minutemen and Hüsker Dü, but doubtless others with zero kudos were implicated too. Rock’n’Roll‘s basic template is a fusion of obvious Adams forebears The Replacements with the pompous grasping of U2 – ‘So Alive’ apes Boy-vintage Bono and Edge with pathological exactitude – on top of which are sprinkled ripe shavings of the modern rock era’s key vocal players: Morrissey (on the lascivious Smiths homage ‘Anybody Wanna Take Me Home?’), Kurt Cobain (‘Note To Self: Don’t Die’, a gall-soused re-write of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’) and Liam Gallagher (comprehensively out-sneered on a brilliant new version of ‘Cigarettes & Alcohol’, titled ‘Shallow’). As a measure of just how arch a statement this record is, consider the opening lyric: “Let me sing a song for you that’s never been sung before,” husks Adams, before ‘This Is It’ – presumably a sly titular rejoinder to buddies The Strokes – detonates like a motorway collision between The Stooges and New Order. Heartbreaker boasted guest vocal spots from Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings; here Adams hauls in ex-Hole bassist Melissa Auf Der Mauer, Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong and his current amour, actress Parker Posey. O brother, where art thou indeed.

None of which should detract from the salient point: Rock’n’Roll is, mostly, a terrific piece of work. It might not sound very much like the Ryan Adams of Heartbreaker, other than in the crucial areas of intent and commitment, but it’s certainly his finest achievement since. Like his debut, it feels like Adams has unleashed himself, without fear. Only the motivation is different: then his world was decayed by sorrow, now he’s hopped up and happy, playing with himself playing at being other people. (‘Boys’ = popoid Ramones; ‘Do Miss America’ = Tom Petty gone glam; etcetera).

Lyrically, he’s still preoccupied with looking for truth and solace amid dissolution and consumption. “Cotton candy and a rotten mouth/You know you’re so fucked up, I couldn’t help but have it for you,” says the glassy-eyed narrator of ‘Wish You Were Here’. “So I am in the twilight of my youth/Not that I’m going to remember,” flounces ‘Anybody Wanna Take Me Home?’ But because introspection is considered more authentic when delivered from behind a wracked acoustic veil – a la the title track – rather than a transparent tribute to rock gods of the near past, he might struggle to be taken seriously. Then again, if Rock’n’Roll proves anything about its angry ant of an author, it’s that he cares little for measuring up to people’s expectations. Ironically, in so doing, he’s surpassed them.

© Keith CameronMOJO, November 2003

Leave a Comment