J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

Playlists, podcasts and music from WQFS Greensboro's J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Long Player #2 :
Ryan Adams - 29

If it weren't for the idea of Ryan Adams, I'm not sure where his songs would land him. To be clear, what I'm talking about here are the ways he's overshadowed his art in his fairly lengthy career. The stage tantrums, the run-away prolificity, the stunt albums. All of it has created a bit of a haze around Adams for me over the years. The high points are really incredibly high, but they also come so early in his career that it's easy to forget. For me, Whiskeytown's Stranger's Almanac and his debut solo album Heartbreaker, while obvious and championed to death, really are his finest hours. But they also earned him enough goodwill to engender the support for albums since. Everyone hoping that the next would be that great return to excellence.

But I also love that because of that, every part of his catalogue has its defenders. For me, aside from the two aforementioned albums, the last calendar year that I had a lot of hope in the work of Ryan Adams was 2005 and it was precisely for one of the reasons I mentioned earlier as an overshadowing element: the prolific nature of his work.

It was announced in the spring of that year that Cold Roses, a double album, would be the first of three records released that year. A Billboard article from March of that year announced the names of the following albums as "September" (this would instead be Jacksonville City Nights) and "29." The first two albums would do really well for Adams respectively. The latter, not so much. But while I unquestionably think Cold Roses is the best of the three, 29 is a record that has held my attention and intrigue for more than a decade. I can't say for sure why, though it does share an overall feel with the album that would follow close on this one's heels, Love Is Hell, one of his other albums that I'll generally stick up for.

Here's where I'll abandon my journalistic integrity (hah) for a second and just say what I think I remember. What I remember is that Adams announced that 29 was an ode to his 20s, with one song for each year. Now, for all I know, this makes about as much sense as when Liz Phair claimed that Exile in Guyville was a song-by-song rejoinder to Exile on Main Street despite the two having different numbers of songs and, you know, the concept just not being there. So, the album opens with the title track. So does it go in reverse order? Also, there are only nine songs on the album. So does he not include when he was 20? It sounds like another case of Adams talking about something ("New album called September!") that just wasn't to be.

Of the three albums that year, this was the only one not recorded with his new backing band The Cardinals, and it's the low-key and smaller structure of this album that probably appeals to me. It's very piano driven in spots. But it also opens with a bit of a rocker ("Twenty Nine") and then goes into softer territory. Part of me wonders if he aimed to replicate Heartbreaker's similar structure as a bit of a tease.

If I were really going to amuse myself here, I would take each song and try to come up with what happened to Ryan in that year of his life. Some of these songs are personal narratives, others are character sketches. There's clearly nothing blatantly autobiographical going on here, but somewhere in his intentions, I suppose there was.

Adams' lyrics are sometimes the most banal things on Earth and sometimes utterly beautiful, but "Carolina Rain" does contain what I consider one of his clunkiest lines. "I pulled into Mecklenburg..." starts the line. Adams is originally from North Carolina, but he pretty famously doesn't hold much truck with his home state anymore. Now, for all I know, there are people here still pissed off at him enough from the Whiskeytown days that he just stays clear. But he did name an album Jacksonville Goddamned City Nights (possibly not the actual title) and wrote "Oh My Sweet Carolina" and now here's another Carolina song, so he has feelings for us, clearly.  But Mecklenburg? For those of you not native to this state, Mecklenburg is the name of the county wherein sits the city of Charlotte. There is no city of Mecklenburg in the state. Now, that's fine, and you can play with details all you want in song, but the word just scans poorly. Charlotte would've made more sense. Or Raleigh. Or something. But not "Mecklenburg." So it does me the double disservice of being a) a poor choice of words aesthetically and b) irritating me as someone knowing that Mecklenburg is not a city.
But 29 is a really good record. It's an album for contemplation and thoughtfulness. About your 20s or whatever you have in mind. Just, stay out of Mecklenburg. Let's rank the songs:

9. Voices
8. Strawberry Wine
7. Carolina Rain
6. Nightbirds
5. Blue Sky Blues
4. The Sadness
3. Elizabeth, You were Born to Play That Part
2. Twenty Nine
1. Starlite Diner

Next week on Long Player: The Afghan Whigs' Black Love



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