Ryan Adams & the Cardinals: “Cardinology”

Loudon Wainwright once recorded a song called “Muse Blues,” a witheringly funny and blunt account of writer’s block and creative frustration. At one point in the song, the singer seem to throw his hand up in the air, in abject desperation, as he moans, “I eat and drink and smoke stuff– I don’t know what to do!” Well if smoking stuff was unproductive for Wainwright, it’s been downright counterproductive for Ryan Adams, a former young prodigy whose recent career has been characterized more by his notoriously erratic performances and reckless behavior than by the quality or character of his music. Lucinda Williams has said that her new song “Little Rock Star” is partly about the destructive impulses of Amy Winehouse, but it’s not hard to imagine there being a little bit of Ryan Adams in there, too.

Allegedly, though, Adams has cleaned up and gotten sober, and if his new record, Cardinology, is any indication, it’s made a world of difference. Though it bears the goofiest title and most boring cover art of any album he’s ever made, it just happens to be the most skilled and finely-crafted set he’s released since his debut, and the clearest and most comprehensive showcase yet of the width and breadth of his talents as a songwriter and recordmaker. But what makes it a beguiling record is that it really doesn’t depart from his previous albums in style or even sound; as Coldplay did earlier this year, Adams simply fixes his familiar formula rather than totally revamping it, making some seemingly small but ultimately vital corrective maneuvers that have resulted in his most vital and thrilling record since Heartbreaker.

Perhaps his newfound sobriety helps to explain it. If nothing else, he seems to have regained his sense of focus and direction; though he’s gained a reputation for recording and releasing his every musical grunt and whim, putting out three full-length albums in 2005 and allegedly recording dozens of albums worth of unreleased songs, Cardinology is short, lean, and efficient, even more so than last year’s back-to-basics album Easy Tiger. But don’t mistake his concision for slightness; though almost half of the album’s dozen tracks clock in at less then three minutes, they also cover more ground and display a greater sense of songcraft than any of his previous records. It’s not that Adams is phoning it in or scrimping on ambition here; on the contrary, this album is the thrilling sound of Adams and his Cardinals hunkering down with a renewed sense of focus, and what they’ve come up with is his hardest-hitting and most affecting work in a good while.

A big part of its success stems from the fact that Adams has finally learned how to synthesize his influences. In the past he’s tended to come across as a poseur, someone who simply apes his idols without putting his own spin on it, recording a Grateful Dead homage with one album and a Gram Parsons one with the next but never sounding like he’s just being himself and making the music he wants to make. Even Easy Tiger felt like a self-conscious attempt to strip his music down to the bare essentials, making it sound almost like he was aping himself. Not so with Cardinology, an album on which all of his obsessions and influences sit comfortably beside one another, bleed into each other, and mesh together to form an album that sounds like the work of an artist with an identity and a vision all his own, not just a punk kid with a big record collection.

But more than anything, the album is winning because of Adams’ surprising development as a songwriter. Gone are the affectations and pretenses of his earlier work; this album is remarkably open-hearted and sincere, a generous and soul-searching collection that embraces big emotions and even bigger melodies. It’s a nakedly honest and emotive affair, full of feeling and earnestness, which fits Adams surprisingly well, be it in the giant Coldplay swell of “Fix It,” the giddy way he spouts nonsensical lines about geopolitical paranoia in “Magick,” or the straightforward confessional quality of the album-closing “Stop,” a harrowing and hopeful song that was surely inspired by his stint in rehab.

The album’s opening five tracks are all knockouts, covering more ground than any Adams album ever has before; even if they’d been released as a five-song EP, it would still be arguably the finest thing he’d ever done. “Born Into the Light” opens the album, a gospel-tinged prayer for faith, which is followed by the compact heartland rock of “Go Easy” and the arena-ready, grand gestures of “Fix It,” which might as well have been called “Fix You.” “Magick,” at barely over two minutes, is a glorious blast of garage rock energy that careens through more hooks than Adams usually comes up with for an entire album, and “Cobwebs” is a soft country-rock ballad. From there, the intensity is ratcheted down just a tad, but there’s not a bad song here, and, appropriately for an album with this title, the Cardinals are in typically fine form, bringing county grit and rock and roll energy to Adams’ compositions.

Adams finds an earnestness and openness that gives the album a surprisingly humble, heartfelt tenor, particularly when contrasted with the swaggering cockiness and pretensions he’s generally known for. He doesn’t hide behind a persona here, but, rather, opens up with a batch of modest, hopeful songs about love and fidelity in the midst of personal and political meltdown. In that context, he’s able to make the broad strokes of “Magick” work amazingly well, and the swelling emotion of “Fix It” comes across as endearing rather than embarrassing. He wrestles with religious faith throughout the record, culminating in some stark, sober-minded reflections about love, faith, and regret on the healing ballad “Stop.”

Whether or not the album wins him any new fans, of course, remains to be seen; for many, Adams has squandered any goodwill he may have earned from his early days in Whiskeytown and the bright promise of Heartbreaker. And from a purely technical standpoint, the album isn’t necessarily any better than some of his more effective genre exercises, in particular Jacksonville City Nights. No, what sets this album apart from all his others is its feel– a small difference that turns out to be all the difference, as this record doesn’t seem like a step forward so much as a whole new beginning. It’s the sound of a second chance, the sound of restoration, and that’s what makes it ultimately a very charming and likable album, Adams’ first in a good long while.

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5 responses to “Ryan Adams & the Cardinals: “Cardinology””

  1. choombaz says :

    Easily the best review of Cardinology I’ve read so far. Great stuff. Agree with every syllable you’ve written!!!

  2. Darren says :

    I seem to be in the minority in that I like Ryan Adams in any style. I think he’s become the victim of “conventional wisdom” among reviewers, who are too quick to keep writing the same story. His career kind of reminds me of Neil Young’s early years, when he was knocking out an album or two a year filled with so many good songs. I’ve listened to Love is Hell, Cold Roses, and Easy Tiger 20 or 30 times each, and I’ll be damned if I can name the songs “that should have been left on the cutting room floor,” as so many critics describe them.

    But you’re right, Josh, that Cardinology is an especially strong collection. I actually wish he would have opened up a couple songs and jammed a bit more, but that’s a minor complaint. Given recent history, I doubt he’ll come back to Knoxville any time soon, but I’m really eager to see him again.

    Oh, and one other thing about Cardinaology: it sounds as good as any new CD I’ve bought in years. I hope he and Bob Clearmountain make some more records together.

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