Ryan Adams could have been forgiven for not releasing the last of the three records he promised for 2005. After Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights provided two decidedly positives steps in the singer/songwriter’s much needed return to form, Adams takes an unfortunate stumble with this latest set, produced by Heartbreaker cohort Ethan Johns.
The form that Adams returned to this year wasn’t the one most people expected – a lot more Whiskeytown than Heartbreaker – and the title-track that kicks off this record shows a concerted effort to keep that going. Also apparent in his 2005 incarnation is a definite fixation on the Grateful Dead, and on “Twenty-Nine” the Dead’s “Truckin’ ” is certainly evoked (if not lifted). Unlike “Truckin’,” though, Adams’s take is a mostly generic attempt at roadhouse rock that doesn’t offer anything new or particularly spirited.
If Adams weren’t trying to write his “Desolation Row” with “Strawberry Wine” it would have been a satisfying little western-waltz. Unfortunately, he couldn’t contain his pen: It’s an eight-minute monster that becomes tedious after the first four. But it’s “Night Birds” that really puts the bullet between the eyes of this lame horse. A particularly curious track, it may be Adams’s attempt at getting a little love from programmers at adult-contemporary stations. It seems more fit for an Aaron Neville encore at the Andy Williams Theater in Branson, and it employs perhaps the worst echo effect in rock history: “We were supposed to rise above, but we sank into the oceanshunshunshunshun.” Come on now, Ryan.
Still, there are a few keepers that show vestiges of Adams’s Whiskeytown country-rock roots. Workingman’s Dead-era Dead or even the Garcia offshoot New Riders of the Purple Sage come to mind with the pedal-steel-fueled cowboy tale “Carolina Rain.” Remember Native American psych-rocker JD Blackfoot’s The Ultimate Prophecy? Adams must. His “The Sadness” plays off of Blackfoot’s title-track from that record masterfully, with the singer shouting, amongst other things, “And I’m at once reborn” and “The sadness is mine” to a wild Tex-Mex acoustic-strum and mariachi rattles and drums.
Despite the three or four keepers, 29 suggests that Adams is still struggling to nail down his musical identity. Though that type of struggle can be a good thing, in the case of a man so conscious of (and affected by) his standing in this trend-charged, hipster-judged landscape (yes, I see the irony here), it can be hell. Kudos for the output this year, but quality over quantity still reigns.