If you listen just wrong to “Games,” the sixth track on Ryan Adams’s Jacksonville City Lights, you’ll swear you hear him sing the following words: “You ain’t gonna tell, Gram, nobody’s sending, nobody sends me but you.” If that’s what he actually means, he’s done a good job proving it. Far from continuing in the same vein he established with the backing Cardinals on Cold Roses – a jammy, rollicking Dead redux released in May – Adams turns Jacksonville City Lights into his most country album since Whiskeytown’s 1997 record, Strangers Almanac. It’s a tremulous exorcism of lingering grief for his genre’s guardian angel: Gram Parsons.
Jacksonville hardly tries to hide this allegiance. Lead track “A Kiss Before I Go” opens with shimmering pedal steel and Catherine Popper’s honky piano, gussying along in full Patsy Cline fashion. Over a cool, rambling beat, a reedy Adams apes Parsons’s trademark giddy resignation. On “Dear John,” Ryan even finds his very own Emmylou in the form of Norah Jones.
Throughout its fourteen tracks, the record overflows with the sort of backwoods stylings that had slowly been fading from Adams’s repertoire. There’s country in the analogies (to be drunk is to be “loaded like freight”), in the song titles (“Silver Bullets,” “Trains,” and the best, “Pa”), and in the mumbled asides and overloaded phrases that casually abandon their rhyme and rhythm (“At the diner in the morning for a plate of eggs/ the waitress tries to give me change, I say/ Nah, it’s cool, you just keep it”).
Certainly, the artist’s recent history gives us reason to question whether this is a genuine return to his roots or another self-conscious exercise. It’s hard to believe Adams would ever traffic his country soul, but then again, he loved rock ‘n’ roll, too. And in some cases here, the “country” designation is more a matter of the production frills than song structure. “Hard Way to Fall,” for example, could have appeared on any of Adams’s solo records. Here, it’s slowed down and dressed up in Jon Graboff’s pedal steel, but it could have been a stripped, gloomy lament on 2000’s Heartbreaker or a ghostly murmur on last year’s Love Is Hell. Of course, it also sounds familiar because the melody is loosely cribbed from Gold‘s “Nobody Girl.”
Perhaps Adams is just earning cheap sympathy with his strained, tour-weary voice, or maybe it’s just too thrilling to hear him revisit Gram, but Jacksonville City Lights does seem to come by its sound honestly. The best songs here – the desperate, straining “The End”; the fierce, grandiloquent “The Hardest Part” – may not match the stuff on Heartbreaker, but they’re affecting evidence of a broken heart.