Easy, tiger

Reconsidering hipsterism, sensitivity, and Ryan Adams’s legacy
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  September 12, 2007
inside_rock_RyanAdams1_Mark
STAYING POWER: Ryan Adams.

Ryan Adams and the Cardinals
8 pm September 17 | at Merrill Auditorium, in Portland | $27.50-$32.50 | 207.842.0800
It’s November 2003, and I’m in Strasbourg, France, for a few days while studying abroad. Idolized singer/songwriter Elliott Smith has recently died of a possible suicide, effectively upending any solace I feel about being an earnest, vaguely depressed-yet-idealistic 20-year-old. The Pitchfork-spearheaded indie-rock resurgence is in its infancy, and I’m ambivalent about it; albums by the Shins and Broken Social Scene sit idly in my backpack, too fey or aggressive for me to yet “get” them.

Unwilling to wallow in Smith’s superlative sadness, I shift my sympathies to another prolific songwriter, Ryan Adams. Though a latecomer to Adams’s best album — 2000’s Heartbreaker (Bloodshot), his solo debut after a tumultuous few years as alt-country greats Whiskeytown’s frontman — I admired the honesty and classicism of 2001’s Gold (Universal). Demolition (Universal), from 2002, is as close as I’ll get to unabashedly loving a Bruce Springsteen album. Despite his outlandish public persona (relationship drama, concert-cancellation drama, drugs-and-alcohol drama), being a Ryan Adams fan felt like a ticket to adulthood, proof you could still wear your heart on your sleeve and still make (or enjoy, at least) timeless rock music.

Adams’s style is so road-tested it’s almost anachronistic. An oeuvre of hard-drinking, hard-loving brawlers and bawlers, his recipe of smart aphorisms and personal-but-universal confessionals mines the depths of triumph and tragedy familiar to any producer/listener of Americana past and present. What makes the formula effective (apart from formidable guitar training) is Adams’s ability to reverently update these traditions. My favorite of his songs — the chilling “Cry on Demand,” from Demolition — offers the slightest postmodern suggestions, beginning “So, it’s how the story goes/Can we cut to the scene where I’m holding you close.” The chorus, “Cry on demand/How’d you learn to?/Cry on demand/Teach me if you want to,” nudges that awareness along and reins it in with touching sentiment. At his best, the 32-year-old Adams feels like the only young songwriter in the genre with the authority and authenticity of the big guns.

The replacements
Back in France, I spend my last spare cash on Adams’s 2003 release, Rock N Roll (on Lost Highway, as are all albums that follow). At the onset of the ever-weakening dollar, that $22 meant I spent the next month berating Adams for subjecting me to dinners of stale baguettes or cereal. Prior to RNR, it wasn’t quite embarrassing to be a Ryan Adams fan, but it was something to keep quiet. (An irony of liking supposed “hipster” music is that it’s uncool to like traditional, emotive folk-rockers of Adams’s ilk, while ostentatious arrangements and grandiose sentiments are frequently studied as gospel — Arcade Fire, anyone?) Rock N Roll, though, is a cringe-inducing slough. Adams’s usually terrific, gravelly vocals are reduced to whiny choruses that can’t reach over grandstanding rock riffs; his influences (the Replacements and, yikes, Oasis) are dated and uncomplimentary, yielding an album of ugly posturing.

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