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For fans of Ryan Adams, it's been difficult to anticipate exactly what you might hear from the artist at any point during the dramatic ebbs and flows of his career. The introspective folk balladeer—who hasn't shied from a more radio-friendly, polished sound with collaborations alongside mainstream musicians like Norah Jones and Sheryl Crow—also has a dark side with a passion for metal.
Back-and-forth between musical egos, Adams has become more divisive with his closest fans than mainstream listeners. Moody, ultra-sensitive, and an artist who, some might say, has diva tendencies, Adams is difficult to understand. It has been even more difficult for fans to say, “I'm a fan of all of his music.”
Adams—who performs at Boston’s Wang Theatre Nov. 18—has instead taken the approach to fuel two individually plotted careers simultaneously, and for the most part it has worked. His most recent efforts include sharp notes in both categories with a true return-to-form self-titled folk rock album as well as the nostalgic punk EP release “1984” released this year. Both releases are dark, comfortable, and reminiscent of sounds from an earlier time. It's as if he has planned the dueling career trajectories for the drama of the eventual connections they would make at this point in his career.
In 2009, Adams talked of abandoning both musical personas and retiring from music altogether after being diagnosed with Ménière's disease, a rare inner ear disorder that affects hearing and balance and can cause extreme migraines and vertigo. He married longtime sweetheart, pop star and actress Mandy Moore, and for a moment it appeared that the often extremely discomforting disease might have ended his career. However, the predictable unpredictability that has become Adams's public persona prevailed again. He quickly rebounded, attributing hypnotherapy and medical marijuana to his recovery, and in 2010 announced new projects with the hardcore release “Orion” (2010) and the folk rock album “Ashes and Fire” (2011). Both seemed to signal an upswing in what was turbulent time in Adams's career with “Ashes and Fire” garnering a Grammy nomination for best engineered non-classical album.
Following the release and success of the Glyn Johns-produced “Ashes and Fire,” it was rumored that Adams was working on a follow-up to the album also produced by Johns. At points, Adams even performed two of the rumored songs in live performances. However, in 2014, it was announced that the project had been scrapped, Adams noting disagreements between him and Johns over recording the album in Adams's home PAX-AM studio or at Sunset Sound in Hollywood, California.
Adams instead opted to record and produce his own album at PAX-AM, creating the very intimate sounding “Ryan Adams.” The result is perhaps his most complex sounding solo album yet, full of reflective homages to his musical inspirations of his youth and throbbing nostalgic rock beats. Gems like “Trouble” and “Am I Safe” are dark and contemplative, exploring themes of loneliness and insecurity with care to avoid sounding emo.
“My Wrecking Ball” is definitely the most poignant and aching ballad on “Ryan Adams.” A painful response to losing his grandmother, Adam sings about drifting away on a car ride while grieving the loss. “Driving through the streets tonight / It's hot, I’ve got the windows down / I wish I could call you, I wish you were still around,” Adams whispers as the song trails off, a reminder of loss many can empathize with. The sound is so straightforward and stripped, emphasizing the lyrics reminiscent of acoustic Springsteen hits like “If I Should Fall Behind.”
Simultaneous to “Ryan Adams,” Adams released “1984,” a 10-song punk EP. Calling it metal might be an extreme, but calling it great punk/alternative throwback would be entirely accurate. Think Pixies and Replacements, an incredible knack for melody and polish, but with enough driving rock beat to please his hardcore fans. A quick listen to what Adams deems a release of singles, the album is a clear ode to the sounds of Adam's youth influences like Hüsker Dü and Mission of Burma. Highlights include the raucously melodic “Wolves” and “When the Summer Ends.”
Adams has seen critical and fan success with both albums, perhaps a sign that he has found a comfort zone in the manic moments of his musical ventures. More importantly, there are ties of melody and nostalgia that bind both efforts, which can allow both types of Ryan Adams fan to at least understand his perspective. For the first time, there may be considerable crossover in his fan base moving forward.
This article was originally published on November 17, 2014.
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