But Adams has turned a corner over the past few years. A notoriously erratic and cantankerous band mate (see his days with Whiskeytown), he’s chummy with his cohorts the Cardinals, and he’s clean—sober now for two years. And though substance abuse never seemed to squelch his prolificacy, Adams, focused and mellowed a bit, seems to be bristling with perhaps a greater degree creative energy since kicking his habits as he’s set to unveil a book in the spring on top of the two full-length albums and an EP he’s released since June of last year.
Like last year’s Easy Tiger, his new album, Cardinology, offers a more even listening experience than most of his previous records. With the exception of the abysmal “Natural Ghost,” a track even the most ardent Ryan Adams fan might struggle to listen to for more than thirty seconds, the album is free of certifiable duds. But in attaining this level of consistency, Adams has sacrificed some of the raw emotion and reckless energy that, yes, resulted in some spotty track lists but also made for a lot of brilliant, poignant songs.
“Born Into a Light,” a country-imbued number in Adams’ musical wheelhouse, gets the album off to a strong start. A deft acoustic riff and stomping percussion usher in each verse, giving way to a gentle melody accentuated by Jon Graboff’s plaintive pedal steel and Neal Casal’s feathery harmonies that dovetail perfectly with Adams’ tenor. As good as the song is, though, Adams’ litany of clichéd self-help phrases like “Be your own best friend/ Have confidence and keep the faith” shows he has some work to do if he wants to be as penetrating lyrically when singing of hope and perseverance as when he mines the depths of heartache and loneliness.
The trio of rock tunes that follow are solid, too, though none of them boast the looseness or spontaneity Adams and company have displayed before on songs like “Cold Roses” and “Magnolia Mountain.” Kick-started with ringing electric guitars, “Go Easy” follows a fairly straight-ahead adult-alternative template before swelling into an uplifting coda that channels latter-day U2. “Fix It,” the album’s first single, showcases Adams’ affinity for classic rock, combining a gritty, bluesy verse with a deceptively restrained chorus that bares its teeth by song’s end while the power-chord feast “Magick” proves an infectiously catchy bit of swaggering garage-rock.
Adams slows things down with “Cobwebs,” which aims to be a slow-building anthem of sorts but never really erupts. Instead it grows rather tiresome, with Adams repeating “confuse my love for the cobwebs” as if incessantly singing the line will breathe profundity into it. But he regains his footing on the terrific, country gospel-flavored “Let Us Down Easy,” delivering an arresting vocal that captures every bit of pain and impassioned pleading entailed in the lyrics.
The back end of the album offers fewer highlights. Carried by little more than acoustic guitar and piano, “Crossed Out Name” is the one song on the album that displays Adams’ talent for creating beautiful melancholy with pared down arrangements, but it’s followed by the aforementioned musical turd, “Natural Ghost,” and the stale “Sink Ships,” which belabors a lover as job applicant metaphor and is made worse by the verse’s melodic similarity to Level 42’s “Something About You.”
As the album draws to a close, it settles into an increasingly relaxed vibe that makes the fervor of songs like “Fix It” seem like a distant memory. The ethereal, finger-picked folk “Evergreen” is a highlight, but “Like Yesterday, despite Casal’s tasteful country-rock solo, feels like a somnolent reprisal of the far superior “Let Us Down Easy.” On the closing track “Stop,” a piano ballad reminiscent of the haunting “Shadowlands” from Love Is Hell, Adams lays bare his experience in gaining a hard-won victory over addiction, singing in a fractured voice, “I know a sickness ancient and cross/ No crucifix could ever fix enough/ But in the basement of a church these people talk/ And there is a line that must be walked/ If you wanna make it stop/ Then stop.”
Ultimately, there’s little to pan about Cardinology, but its consistency isn’t tantamount to greatness. The album is the sound of Adams at peace with himself and at ease and in sync with his band, making music at times as beautiful, moving, and invigorating as anything he’s written, but often sounding a bit too easy and measured.