Having a teacher deem you the smart kid in high school can really screw you when it comes to grades. That brilliant reading of symbolism in T.S. Eliot earns you a B, but the jock next to you scores the same mark for a paper that thought Prufrock was the author. The issue is potential — you can do better, and there needs to be room for you to prove it. Ex-Whiskeytown frontman Ryan Adams suffers from the same skewed grading curve. His post-Gold releases are just good enough to point out his immense talent, thereby pointing out their own failure to make the most of it.
This issue is exacerbated by Adams’s “fuck you” songwriting habits. He notoriously dashes off insta-classics by the napkin-load then takes a weekend to lay down several albums’ worth of tracks. This tactic spawned 2002’s Demolition, a spotty collection of Gold outtakes and junky ditties that did produce “Hallelujah,” now an Adams standard. I resoundingly panned the record and have been mining it for mixtape material ever since.
As the first of three Adams albums set to come out this year, the double-disc Cold Roses can’t escape the skepticism over such prolific production. Interestingly, for the first time, Adams’s prolixity now embeds itself in the song structures themselves. Rock ‘N’ Roll (2003) left unclear where Adams’s studied circumvention of Hank Williams-style country would land him next, and the answer is in a Grateful Dead-style loosening of the screws. If Roses‘ ornate gothidelic cover art (including strangely familiar bears) doesn’t make this clear, first track “Magnolia Mountain” leaves no doubt, and not just in its title. The strikingly Garcian lead noodlings of backup crew the Cardinals might have come from a Mars Hotel session. Somewhat maddeningly, it turns out Adams can nail this idiom too. The track is terrific in his inevitable way: a mix of husky hooks, aching choruses and sloe-eyed lap steel.
Elsewhere on the record, the Cardinals’ cow-jam influence runs the gamut from overwrought to blissful. On occasion, the Jerry-style axe ramblings seem aimless, sounding tasty but bloating their host tracks (“Life is Beautiful,” “When Will You Come Back Home”). But more often, the added personnel is welcome. Twangy anthem “Cherry Lane” rides to glory on a honky slide guitar, then gets the girl and lets her sing in a long, breathy exit. Thinner arrangements would have left the structure threadbare. “Let it Ride,” the album’s standout track, smartly gets behind billowing country licks and a swampy 2/2 beat while Adams’s voice cracks with resignation.
And so although Cold Roses can get messy in the way of a quickly made album, it marks a notable improvement on Adams’s most recent LP. Rock ‘N’ Roll was a self-conscious period piece — an essay on rock rather than an honest album. Roses summons old tropes too, but it incorporates them winningly into Adams’s hard-luck alt-country palette. It’s organic, sincere and decidedly unhip. And with an artist this prone to glib flights of fancy, none of that’s a given.