It’s probably an obvious point, but the so-called “digital age” of pop music in which we presently find ourselves helplessly fixed has numerous drawbacks. Consider the veritable death of album artwork, for instance. A shame. The possible death of the album, for that matter, as a work of artistic entirety at the hands of easily plucked ninety-nine cent single songs also comes to mind. And what about liner notes? These seemingly superfluous bursts of an artist’s thoughts can provide revealing aspects about an album’s greater purpose otherwise lost on the casual listener. I think about this in light of Ryan Adams’ newest studio effort, Cardinology, which was released last week on October 28. Buried deep within a collage of lyrics, black and white photos, and painted clouds that scatter across the record’s jacket are Adams’ requisite “thank you’s.” The first one reads: “Thank you Universe, for connecting us one and all. Consider this music as a gesture of our appreciation.”
I mention this little detail because it speaks volumes about this record; and while I think the sentiment is quite evident in the music itself, reading the statement was a confirmation of a nagging suspicion I had harbored throughout my first few listens, namely that Adams is painting with unprecedentedly broad, musical and lyrical strokes here, each one aimed at battles for individual spiritual redemption never quite won and a struggle to listen for a voice from God never quite heard. It’s an ambitious effort that feels familiar when it works but foreign and forced when it doesn’t, making Cardinology one of Adams’ most perplexing and, sadly, forgettable showings to date.
To put this in context, let’s first acknowledge another obvious point: Ryan Adams loves The Cardinals. No, he really loves them. The backing outfit of Neal Casal, Chris Feinstein, Jon Graboff, and Brad Pemberton has been with Adams off and on since 2005’s brilliant Cold Roses. In fact, Cold Roses, its 2006 followup Jacksonville City Nights, and this most recent album, were all released not as pure solo records but as works by the larger package known as Ryan Adams & The Cardinals. Much in the way Neil Young teamed up with Crazy Horse as a perpetual sonic compliment to his solo efforts, so Adams has indelibly married himself to The Cardinals’ remarkable ability to infuse his music with a broader complexity otherwise absent in his solitary arrangements. And his respect for these musicians with whom he plays is vast (and well deserved). Consider that in recent live performances Adams has been known to take a backseat to the staging of this band, hiding in the side shadows instead of bringing himself to the front of the stage. Here on Cardinology he does just that. Make no mistake, this is a band album, as Adams’ vocals and individualism play second fiddle to the quartet’s broader picture. Oh yeah, and lest we forget, the record is called Cardinology!
Before it was even released, the prospect of a new Adams effort bearing a title that gave serious props to his band was thrilling, as The Cardinals have leant wonderful compliments to Adams’ brilliance as a songwriter and composer over the last four years. Despite the critical disparity levied upon it, Cold Roses is as solid a work of brilliance as Adams has ever produced, and much of its success would not have been possible without his band’s significant contribution. But whereas that record’s two-disc sprawling ambition is peppered with nuance and character, Cardinology is plagued by overproduction and vagueness. It feels as though Adams is indeed trying to swallow the Universe whole; but he’s not savoring the meal. He’s choking on it.
The first four tracks are immediate indications of Adams’ intentions here, bearing optimistic tittles like “Born Into A Light,” “Go Easy,” “Fix It,” and “Magick.” On the first, Adams petitions the listener (himself?) to embrace the idea that we were all “born into a light/ we were born of light/ we were born into a light” and the promise that if you “heal your vines, eventually you’ll heal inside.” On track two he begs “go easy on yourself,” and while the subject of the lyric’s petition may very well be a specific lost love, the broader implications of the song are clearly aimed at the principle of individual forgiveness for ourselves and the mistakes we’ve made—a subject in which Adams, an infamous reveler in the sins of the flesh, is quite well versed. Look, I want to be lifted by these songs. I want to feel the redemption that inspired Adams to write them. But the obviousness of the message kills the rawness of the emotion, and that’s a shame. In other words, nothing in the entirety of these first four seemingly uplifting numbers comes close to achieving the absolution Adams realized with one beautiful line on Cold Roses’ “Magnolia Mountain,” wherein he sang, “It’s been raining that Tennessee honey/ So long I got too heavy to fly/ Ain’t no bluebird ever gets to heavy to sing.”
On “Fix It,” Adams is yearning to do just that. “I’d fix it/ I’d fix it if I could/ And I’d always win/ I’d always win/ I’ll always win in the end.” Casal’s chunky guitar riffs launch the track and set up the song for a quiet rebel swagger that sadly dissolves as the song meanders and collapses under its own weight (a problem throughout). On “Magick,” the album’s fourth track and obvious single, Adams picks up the pace and harkens back to his Rock N Roll days, only this time with more parts Oasis and less parts Green Day. Clocking in at just over two minutes, “Magick” is a quick, unassuming rollick that tells us to “turn the radio on/ So turn the radio up/ So turn the radio up loud and get down/ Let your body move/ Let your body sway/ Listen to the music play/ It’s magick, it’s magick.” I believe Adams here for the first time on the album, even though he can’t resist the urge to remind us of yet another Universal truism (“What goes around comes around”).
While the record never fully abandons the theme of Universe’s Greater Purpose Meets Individual Unrest, the remainder of Cardinology is somewhat less obvious in this regard; and when Adams familiarly opens himself up to the bittersweet conflict of yearning for enlightenment but meeting instead the silence of God and bedtimes spent alone, the results are far more interesting. Consider the semi-sleepy swing of “Let Us Down Easy,” wherein Adams admits that, “Every season I spend alone/ Feels like a thousand in my heart and in my soul” and that “Instead of praying I tell God these jokes he must/ Be tired of himself so much he must be more/ Than disappointed, Christmas comes we eat alone/ A pretty girl’s smile surrounds a pretty girl who/ Takes your order she yells it and cries alone in/ The backroom once in a while until it stops.”
Because so much of this album’s inability to triumph can be attributed to the overwrought sound of the band involved, it’s probably no coincidence that Cardinology’s most successful track is the one that features the fewest Cardinals. “Crossed Out Name” is a swelling acoustic number that finds Adams in the familiar territory of wandering darkened streets alone and yearning, once again, for home. It’s when he’s afraid (not scared), when he seems like he’s about to crack, when he questions his motivations and future, that Adams is often at his best. Consider the following reflection on solitude: “I wish I could tell you just how I felt/ I don’t pray I shower and say goodnight to myself/ And when I close my eyes/ I feel like a page…/With a crossed-out name.” Or the subtle perfection of the way he conveys new love with this: “I kiss her mouth and I know/ For everything there is a word/ For everything but this./ I like the dresses, the shoes, and the clothes./ And everything, you know, that goes/ With loving a girl I suppose.” Damn. That’s what Adams does better than any singer-songwriter in music today. He is at once both, you know, conversational and poetic. Oh how I yearned for more of that on Cardinology.
Another refreshing emergence from the muddiness of this record’s overproduction and thematic heavy-handedness is “Evergreen,” which leans on the whisper of Graboff’s deft pedal steel, Adams’ acoustic, and Casal’s tickling piano, all of which compliment the front man’s cracking, fragile falsetto. Again, I believe Adams when he sings here, “And maybe you’ll find someone/ To lay some roots down next to you/ Be more like the trees and less like the clouds.”
“Natural Ghost” and “Sink Ships” are potential alt-country teases that forsake their inherent possibility for understated greatness with an unwelcome mess of too many guitars, confused harmonies, and throwaway lines like, “Keep the faith, keep moving in time, with the music rolling in your mind.” Really Ryan? Come on man. You’re better than that. Sonically speaking, “Natural Ghost” in particular reminds me of the most egregious errors Adams made in producing Willie Nelson’s Songbird in 2006, an album that found Willie’s voice buried fathoms deep beneath the instrumentation (a sin for Mr. Nelson!) and the emotion of the songs therefore lost in the jumble. Consider that “Natural Ghost” feels anything but ghostly. What could have been an eerie, haunting ballad about rickety stairs and moonlight is reduced to one of the album’s most forgettable tracks.
To be sure, Adams achieves a refreshing musical and lyrical maturity with Cardinology, as he did on the preceding Easy Tiger in 2007, but his recent grasps at a steadier hand have not yet commingled fully with the wilder, unhinged efforts of his earlier works that, while often yielding more than a few duds (“Luminol” anyone?) also ushered forth some of modern American music’s most timeless compositions (“English Girls Approximately” or “To Be Young”). The shame here is that Adams seems suddenly intimidated to embrace his musical and personal demons the way he has so beautifully in the past. And it’s not that this album feels safe, it’s that it feel underwhelming.
In short, Cardinology is not what I expected; but then again, no effort from Adams is ever what anyone expects. After Jacksonville, fans and critics alike were poised for Adams (and The Cardinals) to finally inherit the dusty alt-country throne left vacant by Gram Parsons in 1973 and deliver a quintessential disc of pure Americana. But what did Ryan do instead? He came out with 29 less than a year later, a hushed, sleepy, dance-of-the-dead solo effort that veered significantly off the expected course. And then, two years later, Easy Tiger found Adams newly sober and suddenly harkening back to his 2001 Gold era polish, alluding to a forthcoming effort that would have finally silenced the fans and critics who have been begging for another “Rescue Blues” or “Answering Bell” since 2001. And this is what they get. Peculiar. In some respects, Cardinology feels like a necessary crossroads, a collision of Adams’ most recent history that will undoubtedly yield more greatness in the future, so long as he can start trusting in the Universe instead of trying to thank it so profusely.
BONUS TRACK: For an example of Adams and The Cardinals kicking some ass, check this out. It’s easy to see why Adams loves this outfit so much: