- The Washington Times - Monday, November 3, 2003

Ryan Adams

Rock N Roll

Lost Highway Records

At his most recent area appearance, a solo acoustic show at the 9:30 Club about a year ago, a red-wine-slurping Ryan Adams awarded a pair of vinyl LP prizes to a couple of fans. Both were hard-core punk albums — one by the Misfits, the other by Minor Threat.

The lucky recipients would have been forgiven for thinking: “Thanks, Ry, but, the Misfits? Minor Threat? I prefer, um, Ryan Adams music. You know, that alt-country-rock thing you do with pedal steel guitars, brooding ballads and beery hooks?”

Well, that’s one side of Ryan Adams; there are lots of others. At that same 9:30 show, some may remember, he played jovially along with a Madonna recording. The left turns on his latest, “Rock N Roll,” the formal follow-up to 2001’s “Gold,” a celebrated collection of early-‘70s FM rock facsimiles, aren’t that sharp, but the album will surprise — and maybe alienate — those looking for another “Heartbreaker.”

You won’t find a hint of twang here.

Instead, Mr. Adams has progressed deep into the rest of the ‘70s, stuck his beak into the ‘80s and, ever so gingerly, dipped a toe into the ‘90s. If he keeps it up, he may make it into the 21st century.

Though it’s not quite D.C. hard-core, “Rock N Roll” is brasher, ruder, louder and crunchier than anything he has done in his short but creatively fertile career. (He turns 29 tomorrow.)

Aside from new poses, the thing most evident on “Rock N Roll” is a nerviness in Mr. Adams, who seems in interviews almost dangerously self-aware. He is keenly conscious of the high expectations — and pressure — that come with being a critical pet, a favoritism that easily can turn nasty.

He’s plainly aware of the rock-star proclivities that might literally be the death of him one day on “Note to Self: Don’t Die,” which he co-wrote with his girlfriend, actress Parker Posey.

On the opening cut, “This Is It,” a tightly strung ball of Morrissey-inspired angst, Mr. Adams addresses a lover but might as well be speaking to all of us who have challenged the singer-songwriter to do something original: “Let me sing a song for you / That’s never been sung before.”

However worthy Mr. Adams’ product has been to date, that’s exactly what he has never done. With a primal scream of punk, he bawls, over and over, “This is really happening,” as though he’s cathartically sweating every bad review ever published about him.

With that off his chest, Mr. Adams the rock classicist returns. The opening riff to “Shallow” is taken almost note-for-note from T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On”) or, if you prefer, the Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman In a Black Dress.” The glam metal of “1974” begs comparisons to Kiss and Alice Cooper, while “So Alive” captures the epic swagger of early U2 and ends with Mr. Adams doing his best Jeff Buckley falsetto.

The influence that most infuses “Rock N Roll,” though, is that of Paul Westerberg, in both his early and contemporary periods — the callow punk of the first few Replacements albums and his more pop-oriented solo material.

First explored on last year’s “Demolition,” the fascination with Mr. Westerberg blooms fully on “Rock N Roll,” and it seems a particularly good fit for Mr. Adams.

Sending “Anybody Wanna Take Me Home,” “Do Miss America” and “Boys” through a Westerberg filter gave Mr. Adams a kind of buffer to distance him from the classic-rock fealty that was so obvious on the Whiskeytown albums and “Gold.”

His engine for melodies, happily, has yet to sputter. Mr. Adams all but recycled “Nuclear” (from “Demolition”) for this album’s “Burning Photographs,” but the song is no worse for it. Each of the 14 tracks, the best of which were co-written with drummer Johnny T. Yerington, has a distinct personality, and repeated listens yield fresh nuances.

Mr. Adams’ gift for lyrics, too, shows no sign of abating. Their irony skates right by if you don’t give them a second read.

In the first verse of “Boys,” he sings, “I’m as lonely as boys / I’m as lonely as monkeys taught to destroy / Anything they learn to enjoy.” Then, in the next, he reveals a sly commentary on the evolution of the sexes: “I’m as lonely as boys / Who are lonely for girls / Who are as lonely as monkeys taught to enjoy / Everything they learn to destroy.”

On the melancholy, piano-driven title track, he downplays rock-star posturing and shows an affecting self-doubt: “Everybody’s cool playing rock and roll / I don’t feel cool at all / There’s this girl I can’t get out of my head.” The pathos is driven home by a sad distorted vocal loop of a woman confiding over the phone, “I miss my best friend.”

Despite such fleeting moroseness, “Rock N Roll” is an explosion of mental well-being compared to his previous work.

The same can’t be said for Mr. Adams’ other project, an EP called “Love Is Hell, Part I,” the first tranche of which comes out today. There, Mr. Adams is in his customary doldrums, which may please his fans.

But “Rock N Roll,” written and recorded after the “Love” sessions, shows a soon-to-be-thirtysomething maturing into a confident, well-rounded man.

Yes, that sounds like report-card commentary; with Ryan Adams, it’s unavoidable. For rock critics, he’s our favorite student.

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