- The Washington Times - Monday, December 19, 2005

Ryan Adams

29

Lost Highway records

What can you do about it? Ryan Adams is determined to die a death of a thousand albums. The hope for fans of this recklessly prolific singer-songwriter is that when the ball drops on the old year, at least one great album can be IPod-shuffled from the wreckage. The task proved easy enough in 2003, when Mr. Adams released the full-length “Rock N Roll,” plus a pair of fitfully inspired EP-length volumes titled “Love Is Hell.”

This year was a different story.

“29” is 2005’s third release from Mr. Adams; it follows on the heels of “Jacksonville City Nights” (a double album, no less) and “September.” Though they had their moments, neither of these predecessors — both heavy on swinging country rock and recorded with a band called the Cardinals — was what you would call a masterpiece. Unsurprisingly, “29” is the sound of an exhausted performer.

Still, in its very exhaustion, in its biblical allusions and mind-altered disarray, “29” occasionally achieves a kind of bleary-eyed majesty. At its best, it suggests a trip through Burt Bacharach’s songbook with Leonard Cohen and Neil Young as guides.

The album was produced by Ethan Johns (who helmed Mr. Adams’ transcendent “Gold” album of 2001), but you’d never know it from its sonic desolation.

Ignore the title track, a useless update of the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’.” (Mr. Adams has been particularly busy with Dead-worship this year, and the long, strange trip has gone far enough.)

“Strawberry Wine” is the true beginning of the album; its gentle acoustic shuffle drifts on for a delightfully miserable eight minutes and asks, “Can you still have any famous last words if you’re somebody nobody knows?” Good question.

That’s followed by a couple of gorgeous late-night confessions rising up like smoke from an ashtray. A somber string section and a violent echo effect fill the “empty houses and empty rooms and empty feelings” of “Night Birds” with uncomfortable tension. The piano-plunked “Blue Sky Blues” sounds like a score Mr. Adams has written for some lost Civil War movie.

With “Carolina Rain,” a more digestible imitation of “Workingman’s Dead,” the album pretty much peaks; “Starlite Diner,” “Elizabeth, You Were Born to Play That Part” and “Voices” bleed together to form a somber mood piece. (I omitted from that list the spaghetti-Western burp “The Sadness,” which is best forgotten.)

“Waiting on someone that just won’t show/Every night it seems like there’s no tomorrow,” Mr. Adams sings wearily in “Elizabeth.”

Back on “Strawberry Wine,” he observes that “it’s getting winter, and if I want any flowers, I gotta get my seeds into the ground.”

I’ll take that as a warning of a very busy 2006.

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