For me, Ryan Adams’ music has been the type of tortured love that peeks in and out of the corners of your life at unpredictable intervals, never quite making good on its promise but always leaving you awestruck and wondering what the true depth of its possibility might be.
I first saw Whiskeytown on a whim while on vacation from college in a dank club on the outskirts of downtown Houston. It was a Tuesday night and only about six other people were in the audience, but somehow Adams and the songs that so freely spun out of him seemed like lost friends clamoring for a reassuring reunion. Years later I’d see him in New York, hair covering his face and ravaged by the most irascible of his legendary foul moods, looking every bit as combustible as you could imagine, and I half-feared a Cobain-esque flameout. And then years later I’d see him in Austin, crooked and full of guile as he crashed a writers-in-the-round performance with his foul mouth and devastatingly disruptive talent. All through it there was a sense that not only was I the lucky witness to one of the most profound, inspiring musical talents of a generation, but also that Adams was destined for an incomprehensible inner struggle that would embroil his talent in a parade of near-misses and true greatness.
Ryan Adams is the romantic fantasy that keeps rock writers in business—unrealized potential incarnate, a tabloid hero for the gossipy and jealous among us who will never be able to write a song as good as the ones he writes on his way out of bed each afternoon. The music world has given Mr. Adams quite a bit of shit, and to be fair, for his part he has often given as good as he’s gotten, going to great lengths to ruin what, by all rights, should be one of modern music’s most rich, lasting legacies.
In this context, Cold Roses comes as a bit of relief, bereft of the posturing that so often attends Adams’ work. Shelving (one hopes indefinitely) his über-brat persona and refraining from dedicating songs to celebrity girlfriends, this double-disc effort isn’t the self-indulgent excess so many had feared (in this case, the two-disc approach is more “let’s pretend this is an old-timey record” schtick than unedited maximalism— the whole collection totals roughly 70 minutes). That said, there’s also a sense of retreat that permeates the record, a willingness to offer the comforts of familiar tones instead of ambitiously taking chances. The songs are all good enough, but nothing in particular stands out.
Listening to Cold Roses, it starts to seem like the best new lazy critic’s comparison for Adams isn’t Dylan or Westerberg, but rather Jackson Browne. Like Browne, Adams’ vocal delivery is often soothing and resonant, and his hooks and melodic sense are warm and enveloping, but there’s a certain blandness that permeates the affair as the songs inevitably hover at mid-tempo. On the first disc, for instance, only the garagey “Beautiful Sorta” (with its New York Dolls-tribute intro) interrupts the windswept quasi-country atmosphere, and even lead single “Let It Ride” only stands out for its slightly more propulsive rhythm. Taken in sum, all the songs run together and while it makes for good listening overall, there’s little of the urgency that has marked the brighter moments of both Ryan Adams’ Whiskeytown catalog and his solo work.
The verdict is still out on whether Adams’ career will ever ascend to the heights it should. But with two new releases scheduled for the next few months, perhaps we won’t have to wait much longer to see if he can achieve a renaissance. For its part, Cold Roses finds Adams retreading some of his strengths without blazing new ground. Pleasant if underwhelming, one suspects there’s just enough here to find reason to still believe.