Musings, Nits, and Praises: To Be Older (Is to Be Sober, Is To Be Focused)

Musings, Nits, and Praises

A farrago of all things deemed blog-worthy by a music-loving, poetry-writing, humor-seeking English teacher


To Be Older (Is to Be Sober, Is To Be Focused)

Whatever Ryan Adams' stylistic whim over the past seven years--alt-country, AOR, country, dour Brit pop, folk, garage rock--nearly every album held two things in common: more than a few staggeringly brilliant songs that would make any songwriter envious (Rock'n'Roll and 29 perhaps being the exceptions) and enough certifiable to leave a listener wondering how someone with Adams' remarkable talent could display such spotty quality control.

Easy Tiger, Adams' first release in over a year (an epic drought by his standards) isn't his best album, but it his most consistent, offering some moments of splendid songcraft without the weight of a lot of filler. Backed by the latest lineup of The Cardinals (they're not billed on the album cover), Adams concentrates on straightforward, acoustic-based songs and various flavors of country. The album opens with "Goodnight Rose," a staggered, twangy rocker reminiscent of Cold Roses but downshifts into a subdued, melancholy tone with the first single, "Two." Complimented by Sheryl Crow's harmonies, Adams' ache-tinged tenor buoys even the most pedestrian of lines: "'Cause it's cold in here/And I wish it was hot/The sink's broke, it's leaking from the faucet."

Not surprisingly, Adams' trademark elegiac tales of broken relationships, crushed ambition, and transient youth permeate the album. He fails, though, when he tries too emphatically to convey heartbreak. With a tinny acoustic guitar doubling the vocal melody, "Off Broadway," a reworked tune originally recorded during the Suicide Handbook sessions, suffers from an insipid and painfully repetitive chorus as Adams loses his way home after spotting an ex-lover: "I don't know where that is anymore/I don't know where that is anymore/I don't know where that is anymore/Used to be off Broadway." Someone help the man home already! And, on "The Sun Also Sets," he mars an otherwise solid song with a strained, overwrought vocal delivery, which culminates with him channeling what sounds like the voice of Grover right before the final chorus.

More often, however, Adams strikes the right balance of sadness and subtlety. On the breezy "Two Hearts" he foresees the inevitable collapse of a relationship ("Two hearts/One of them will break/Like bad ideas on a beautiful day/Two figures moving through the dark/ Three words is all it takes to break your heart in two") while on the beautiful "Oh My God, Whatever, Etc.," he wearily surrenders to listlessness: "But the light of the moon leads the way/Towards the morning, and the sun/The sun's well on it's way too soon/But oh, oh my God, whatever, etc."

That sort of self-reflection lies at the heart of quite a few tracks. To be sure, there are some "young gal did me bad" moments, but they're tempered by Adams' acknowledgment of his own failings, whether he's admitting the difficulty of commitment--"I make these promises/But all these promises hurt/It's like they never get a lift off" ("Rip Off")--or confessing his weakness for anxious "late night girls" on "These Girls"--"It's so sad but when they smile/God, I've been had"--arriving at the conclusion that "These girls are better off in my head."

Adams achieves mixed results when he veers from sullen musings. "Halloweenhead," the album's lone musical departure, boasts a catchy melody and offers some self-deprecating humor, but the near Spinal Tap homage, replete with bells, storm noises, and the shout of "Guitar solo!," sounds decidedly out of place. The sunny bluegrass number "Pearls on a String" fares much better, providing a fun, top-tapping tune while retaining the instrumental textures common to the album.

Easy Tiger shows Ryan Adams can be focused and accessible, but it's fair to say that at times it sounds a bit too tame, too easy. With the album's heavy dose of balladry, there are few traces of his customary reckless energy or swagger. Maybe next time around he'll manage to infuse those elements into his maturing sound--chances are we won't have to wait long to find out. Still, Adams' talent as a songwriter is undeniable--"Oh My God, Whatever, Etc." "Goodnight Rose," and "These Girls" stand with the best in his extensive catalog--and not having to lunge for the skip button too often while listening to the album is a welcome change.

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