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By Scott Stetson (MaxPower324)

Ryan Adams - Rock N Roll

Ryan Adams did not want to make this record.  The cover shows a tired and zombie-like Adams holding his guitar (perhaps a parody of the cover to John Mayer’s Heavier Things?).  The title of the album, Rock N Roll, is written backwards, reflected in a mirror.  Inside the jewel case is the image of Adams’ lifeless left arm chained to the record.  These images in the album artwork also accurately describe its contents.

The album Ryan Adams wanted to release, Love is Hell, was rejected by his record label, Lost Highway (owned by Universal), because they wanted something more upbeat and radio-friendly.  For anyone who is keeping track, this is the second time in the past five years that Ryan Adams has been cheated by his record label.  The first instance took place a few years ago when Whiskeytown, Adams’ old band, recorded their final album, Pnemonia.  Whiskeytown’s label, Outpost, had gone bankrupt and Lost Highway bought the rights to Pnemonia.  After the album was completed, the label sat on it for two years before finally releasing it.  By this time, Whiskeytown had long broken up, the moment had passed, and Adams had already launched his solo career and had two more albums under his belt.

After Love is Hell was rejected, Adams quickly recorded Rock N Roll in two weeks, and it certainly shows.  Aside from a few gems, the album feels rushed and haphazardly thrown together.  This is a shame, because anyone who has been following Adams knows that he is a talented songwriter with and extensive knowledge of rock music and a great voice.

The songs “Shallow,” “Note to Self: Don’t Die,” “Rock N Roll,” “Do Miss America,” “Boys,” and “The Drugs Not Working” all feel very sketchy and unfinished.  These songs all had potential and could have been much better.  “1974,” “Luminol,” and “She’s Lost Total Control” either needed serious re-tooling or should not have been released.  “Wish You Were Here” has some decent guitar parts, but some of the worst lyrics I have ever encountered, which is particularly disappointing because that has always been one of Ryan’s strong points.  Were these lyrics really written by the same man who wrote the beautiful “Jacksonville Skyline,” and “Winding Wheel?”    The standout tracks of the album are “This is It,” which is just a solid pop-rock song, “So Alive” with a U2-ish feel to it, and “Burning Photographs,” with a nice hook and tasteful guitar solos.  “Does Anybody Wanna Take Me Home” is good too, and of all the songs on the album I think this one most clearly represents what Adams is known for.

Overall, Rock N Roll lacks the direction, purpose and honesty that have always been present in Ryan Adams’ records.  The biggest difference between this record and his previous ones is the decline in quality of lyrics, most likely a result of the disc being rushed.  He has abandoned his unique interpretations of American rock roots, blues, folk, and country for the now-generic and tired “retro-garage-80's-throwback” sound that the industry has been flooded with for the past few years.  Something peculiar about the record is that the song titles are all very similar or identical to well-known songs of other bands (the Strokes, the Stooges, Pink Floyd, Joy Division, Led Zeppelin, the Smiths, the Beatles, Love & Rockets) and the album title itself  is very generic and uninspired.  Whether the lyrics, the change of style, the strange selection of song titles, and the album artwork are all Adams’ way of subtlety sticking it to his label for rejecting Love is Hell or just a product of the haphazard creation of the album is up to interpretation.  And yet even stranger, after all that hassle, Lost Highway ended up releasing Love is Hell anyway, but as two EP’s instead of a full-length album.  This doesn’t make any sense because if they were concerned about the commercial success of Love is Hell to begin with, why did they release it as EP’s, which do not sell as well as full lengths?  Instead of paying around $13.00 for a full length album, the two EP’s combined cost over $18.00.

There is another factor that may have contributed not only to the mediocrity of this album but also to the decline of his music since his solo debut Heartbreaker.  Ryan Adams is the busiest man in the music industry.  Since Heartbreaker in 2000, Adams has released two albums, a b-sides compilation, and two EP’s.  He has also recorded two discs with the New York hardcore punk band The Finger, and collaborated with The Counting Crows, Beth Orton, and Emmylou Harris.  Adams has also made guest appearances on other bands records and produced a couple of albums.  He recorded five discs worth of material to be released in a forthcoming boxed set, as well as recording his own blues version of the entire Strokes album Is This It (unreleased).  On top of that, he has also been touring North America and Europe.  He has recorded more new material in the past four years that some artists release in their entire careers.  Adams needs to slow down, focus himself, and spend more time fine-tuning the material he has before he moves on to the next project.  Adams severely fractured his wrist on January 22nd, and cancelled his tour of Europe because he cannot play the guitar with his injury.  If the break does not effect his playing, it could be just what he needs; some time to slow down and stop recording for awhile.

If you are looking to check out Ryan Adams, his best work is still his debut album, Heartbreaker, along with his recordings as the front man of Whiskeytown.  It is unfortunate that his newest album turned out the way it did, but mark my words, you haven’t heard the last of Ryan Adams.  He is an incredibly talented musician.  One of these days, he is going to release an album that will just blow everyone away, he just needs to slow down and focus.  He has the potential to make major changes to the face of popular music once he settles down and matures.  And hopefully, next time, the record label will stay out of his way.

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