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I was born at a relatively young age. Growing up consumed the better part of my childhood. As a young man I chased a lot of girls. But they kept getting away. Then I got older and even slower, so I got married. I've lived in New York City almost since before I moved here. I summer in Manhattan, which is like New York City, but with more humidity.

Here's me, without baby, thinking big thoughts. (Actually, what I'm thinking is, "Hey, these aren't Pringles!") I think I look better with baby.

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You Can Be Twenty On Magnolia Mountain
Monday, May 23, 2005

After the Rock’n’Roll album, it may have seemed like Ryan Adams was going to be his generation’s Paul Westerberg. He certainly made a record to lay claim to the title, and had a celebrity feud with Westerberg to boot. But as I listen to and absorb the exquisite Cold Roses, I think I finally have him sussed. I think he’s going to be his generation’s Neil Young. And frankly, a fella could do a lot worse.

I think when Ryan Adams is 60, people will look back at his catalog, and it will be meandering, inconsistent, spotty, unpredictable… and jaw droppingly spectacular. There will be unpopular work—- hell, there might even be an album as ill-conceived as Young's Everybody’s Rockin’ (or as I called it, Everybody’s Whinin’). But there will be five, ten, more albums as transcendent as Déjà Vu, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, On the Beach, Zuma, Harvest, Tonight’s the Night, Ragged Glory. As far as I’m concerned he’s got at least three already—- Heartbreaker, the incandescent and classic Gold, and now Cold Roses.

Cold Roses is supposed to be one of three albums he’s putting out this year, although I’ll believe that when I see it; in 2002 he was supposed to put out five records, but they got collapsed into the single Demolition (although if you looked you could find the studio session bootlegs Suicide Handbook, 48 Hours, Pinkhearts Demos, and Exile on Franklin Street, which attest to the quality and proliferation of his output in that time.)

In 2003 I saw Neil Young with his band Crazy Horse, at the age of 58, play an entire concert comprised exclusively of his latest album, which at the time many in the crowd had never heard (indeed it wasn’t even out yet.) People were pissed; someone called out for “Cinnamon Girl,” and Young deadpanned, “Sorry, we don’t know that one.” He did blast off about five chestnuts in his encore. And by the way, the concert was great; the following spring I saw him do it again, but the album was out, people knew the songs, and suddenly everyone loved him again.

I’m listening to a recording of Adams right now from May 12 of this year, and the fans are calling for songs they know. But Adams, stubbornly but with grace, is sticking to his guns, filling the set with new and unfamiliar material. If you don’t want the artist to challenge you, if you want it to be easy, then you probably don’t want to follow Ryan Adams, because if you expect the last tour, you will be disappointed. But this is what makes him great, and lies at the core of what I think he has in common with Neil Young.

The first couple of times through Cold Roses, I heard it as a folksy riff on Gold-- less a reinvention of classic rock, more alt.country. But then I read that the new album—- recorded with his new band the Cardinals—- was his homage to American Beauty-era Grateful Dead; think “Uncle John’s Band,” but more morose. At first I didn’t quite believe it… but then I remembered that the last time I saw him live he used the Dead’s “Wharf Rat” as a show piece for his set, playing an extended and heartfelt version. And when you open the gatefold of the CD, there as plain as day is a shadow image of a bear handing a rose to a little girl. The only way this could be a more deliberate reference to Grateful Dead iconography would be if instead of a little girl it was a skull.

The album opens with “Magnolia Mountain,” which Adams says is about an '80s porn star, but which rings and sobs and lilts and sighs like some great forgotten album track by Van Morrison, Neil Young, the Band, even the Mick Taylor-era Stones. Neil Young could have sung this one on Harvest. First you hear Adams softly count the song in; then a single plaintive acoustic guitar, as the song creeps over you. Cindy Cashdollar’s pedal steel, and some combination of her and bassist Catherine Popper’s backing vocals, lend color and texture, giving the song—- and indeed the whole album—- a warm organic feel. J.P. Bowersock’s lead guitar work is tasteful and never flashy, not entirely unlike, say, James Burton.

The refrain to “Magnolia Mountain" goes like this:

“Lie to me
Sing me a song
Sing me a song until the morning comes
If the morning comes
Will you lie to me
Hold me down till the morning comes
And if the morning comes
Will you lie to me
Will you take me to your bed will you lay me down
Till I’m heavy like the rocks on the riverbed…”

The trick isn’t writing lyrics like that. The trick is pulling them off. And damn if Adams isn’t just earnest enough to do it.

The songs keep coming, easy as a porch swing, lots of minor chords and strummed guitars. And Cold Roses is a double CD, even though at about 76 minutes it could have all fit on one disc. But instead of giving us a single, overlong song cycle, Adams gives us two beautifully crafted records that each stand alone, or work as a seamless whole. In the CD age, when most albums are too long by 15 minutes, it is a pleasure. And of course, the thing is priced as a single.

It would be easy to call this Adams’s Harvest—- and to call Heartbreaker his Tonight’s the Night, and Gold his Everybody Knows This is Nowhere—- but that isn’t fair to him, any more than it was fair to blame Mantle because he wasn’t DiMaggio. Where Adams most evokes Young is in the fact that I have absolutely no idea what his next record will sound like, but I do know I'll buy it the day it comes out. I can be pretty sure that it won’t sound like this, though, and that the folks who are booing his shows now because they want to hear the old stuff will be equally vexed come autumn when he’s on to the next gig and they want to hear Cold Roses. If you want to hear the last record, you can’t help but be disappointed.

And Adams has a reputation for spotty live work. He is, I can attest from live recordings and having seen him two times, great. But he is not consistent, and you can indeed catch an off show. To me that is sometimes the price you pay for artistry; I have a business colleague who is fond of saying "Stars have rough edges." In this respect he reminds me, and I’m sorry to put the weight of the world on his shoulders but I think he’s up to it, of Van Morrison or Bob Dylan. Both are great artists, and I can produce several friends who will tell you each has done one of the best and one of the worst concerts they’ve ever attended.

I was going to write a little bit about a whole bunch of records, and I will, soon. But this one has grabbed me so thoroughly that it needed its own spotlight. It is possible that I am just so besotted with the guy that I cannot be objective, although it might help to know that I was less than keen on Rock’n’Roll when it first came out (but crazy for Love is Hell, which came out the same day, and which was the less publicized but far more essential release.) So hey. Don’t take my word for it. Check it out here.

I've mentioned in this space that my wife, who is no music geek, nonetheless has an uncanny golden ear. When she falls for something I play in the house, it is always a mark of a great album. She loved Gold, and she said of it in the car one breezy afternoon, "It has the sweet familiar ring of every album you loved as a kid." Precisely. She digs this one a whole lot.


Posted by: --josh-- @ 8:59 PM  

At 1/04/2010 3:30 PM, Blogger --josh-- said...   

Revisiting this old post, I must add a note here. Ryan Adams and the Cardinals have never been anything short of great live; the potential spottiness of his live gigs has never applied to that band.

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