Going back to the well

BY JEFF SANFORD
Daily Arts Writer
Published October 26, 2008

Ryan Adams & The Cardinals
Cardinology
Lost Highway Records

Courtesy of Lost Highway Records

3 Out of 5 Stars

It seems Ryan Adams never runs out of ideas. In the eight years since he made his solo debut with Heartbreaker, he's released 10 albums and one EP while still finding time for various guest appearances and even some production work. He put out an unprecedented three full-length albums in 2005 alone, cementing his reputation as a prolific powerhouse. But while the sheer magnitude of his output remains impressive, the quality of his work has been unquestionably inconsistent throughout the years. With Cardinology, Adams again proves his vast ocean of ideas isn't drying up. But perhaps more importantly, he proves he is still capable of producing the engaging, sincere brand of rock'n'roll that first brought him to fame.

Like many of his other releases, Cardinology is a testament to Adams’s ability to make good songwriting sound easy. In a nutshell, that’s just what the album is — a collection of extremely listenable, well-written tracks that neither disappoint nor overwhelm. Adams is a master songsmith, making the melodic power of songs like “Fix It” sound effortless.

But while surviving an early punk phase, various addictions to hard drugs and embarrassing confusions with the similarly named pop-star Bryan Adams, Ryan Adams has been labeled everything from musical genius to unoriginal bore. Haters have criticized his apparent emphasis of craft over passion and his alleged failure to form a distinct sound. While a bit exaggerated at times, a lot of the criticisms ring true on the album. Case in point is “Magick,” a generic pop exercise with bland guitars and insipid melodies. But despite the occasional drab moments, Adams still delivers some nostalgic rock gems.

From the opening acoustic riff of “Born Into A Light,” Adams establishes the sound of the record. Dripping with folky optimism, the track defines the countrified classic-rock blend that has become Adams’s trademark. It’s music that resonates with a modern audience while still appealing to mom and pop. For better or worse, Adams’s music is safe. He rarely takes chances, preferring to write tuneful, easily digested rock songs. Even though this formula generates predictability and sometimes boredom, the album is still rescued by Adams’s bittersweet melodies and focused songwriting.

Per usual, Adams wears his influences on his sleeve. An outspoken Grateful Dead fan, he adopts their laid-back, bluesy sway on several tracks. “Fix It” begins with a grooving bass line and soulful guitar licks that would make Jerry Garcia proud. Somewhat surprisingly, the record has numerous spots of U2-inspired drama. In “Cobwebs,” Adams’s voice takes on a Bono-like swagger. Confident and stagy, he saunters over a gripping mix of drums and guitar.

The tail end of the album sees the softer side of Adams and the Cardinals. “Sink Ships” begins with intricate acoustic noodling that brings to mind Nick Drake before it gives way to familiar western twang. Closer “Stop,” a slow piano ballad, may be Adams’s most adventurous song on the album. But while it explores new territory, it’s an uninspired drag that never gets off the ground.

Cardinology isn’t shocking and it doesn't break any new musical ground, but it certainly provides for an entertaining listen. Adams again flexes his seasoned musical muscle to provide a safe, pleasant album that's not without its rousing moments. Perhaps with his next album Adams will take enough chances to deliver something truly remarkable. Based on his reputation, it shouldn’t take long to find out if he does.