Whether or not there’s any truth to it, a frequently espoused rock myth is that the most drug-addled artists — Keith Richards, Lou Reed, Kurt Cobain, Bob Dylan in ‘65/’66 — create their most visionary and compelling work while locked in the nerve-numbed wasteland of junksick depravity and addiction. And the logical terminus of that myth is that when those artists clean up, the music remains good, but never as stunningly powerful as before.
In a way it’s perversely fitting, then, that Ryan Adams, one of modern music’s most alternately recalcitrant and rock myth-obsessed artists, would release a record that obliterates that notion (or at least proves an exceptional exception to the rule). Cardinology, his fifth record with the Cardinals in just three years (remember who we’re talking about), positively hums with the clarity, wit, heart, songs and music-history acumen Adams has been desperately trying to convince us all is his stock-in-trade ever since he emerged from the Whiskeytown implosion with 2000’s Heartbreaker. Cardinology’s breakthrough is that, via Adams’ newfound sobriety, it proves he was right all along.
Gently blurring the lines between the warm golden haze of pedal-steel’d country rock with elements of tasteful, classicist new wave, the quietly intimate Cardinology jettisons the schizoid, freewheeling genre-hopping of previous records, giving the album — and, most important, the songs — an intensity of focus where there was once just intensity: The ringing slow-groove of “Fix It” melds a Gram Parsons-style musical lament to soaring melodies that recall a time when you didn’t hate U2; the gorgeous country embrace of “Born into a Light” builds upon Heartbreaker’s foundations while removing the ‘alt-‘ from its genre tag; and “Magick” and “Sink Ships” swagger with a life and confidence that for Adams, finally, not only sounds deserved but also inevitable.