Given the fact that it’s been nearly a decade since alt-country troubadour Ryan Adams released the Gram Parsons-esque Heartbreaker, it seems somewhat strange that that album remains the impossibly high standard to which his subsequent albums have been held up against.
There’s no way a sober, 33-year-old Adams wouldn’t be able to write the same kind of album his self-destructive, impetuous 24-year-old self dreamed up while heartbroken and hungover from a bottle of cheap whiskey (and God knows what else). But really, who would want to hear him try?
Thankfully, on the dully titled Cardinology, Adams has cut himself some slack and continues to unapologetically do what he’s been doing on the last couple albums he’s released: writing solidly crafted songs from a variety of genres without letting the pressure get to him.
The admirably simple, unadorned record represents the all the life changes Adams has made as he’s grown up and away from the adolescent antics that once threatened to overshadow his music.
Though there are a couple of forgettable numbers among the album’s 12 tracks – mostly concentrated toward the album’s first third – they are outweighed by some of the best songs he’s ever written: “Cobwebs,” “Crossed Out Name,” “Evergreen” and “Stop,” to name a few highlights.
I only wish he had left out the shlock-rocking “Magick,” which condenses everything critics and fans alike hated about his 2002 album, Rock N Roll, into its short 2-minute, 18-second running time. Though Adams forged his reputation with slow, sad songs, he has proved many times that he is capable of writing loud rock songs infinitely smarter than this one.
Adams indulges his serious, quieter side with “Crossed Out Name,” yet another ode to New York City, and I found the piano-driven song sticking with me long after I had turned the album off.
Adams saves the best song on the album for last: “Stop,” about a drug addict’s struggle to stay sober. His own personal experience with addiction, which played out rather publicly for most of his young career, echoes through the hushed whisper of a song. Though Adams’ records might not be as thoroughly spectacular these days, the emotional honesty Adams imbues his songs with is still one of his biggest assets.