How will Ryan Adams be remembered? The precocious media darling will either be labeled a brilliant songwriter who had trouble finding a singular voice, or go down as an ill-tempered burnout who blew his load with Heartbreaker and spent the rest of his career wallowing in shallow genre exercises. With such concerns hanging over his head, Adams opted for the concept-album route with his third release in a recent deluge of albums, delaying final judgment one more time.
Vaulting from youth to … well, more youth, Ryan Adams developed 29 around the idea of leaving his 20s behind. Each song represents a year in his third decade, blessing the listener with nine tracks as mercurial as Adams’s famous temper.
The result is a startling combination of what made Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights so impeccably good. 29 is, at times, a faint reminder of what Adams is capable of while maintaining hope for a brighter future.
Musicwise, Adams remains at least partially stuck in the same rut he’s been in since his brilliant debut Heartbreaker – exceptional music that hints at a grander potential. The album’s seventh track, “Sadness,” employs Spanish guitars that stand out in the song’s nostalgic depression. His lyrics are often convoluted and prosaic, but therein lie their charm. “Sadness” begs to be put on repeat with its strange, splendid lyrics such as: “I am the horror that brings us to the morning / Where I will have to stand up and fight God.” The song seems to unravel at a blistering pace, but at its climax, listeners realize that nearly seven minutes have passed.
The best track on the album is undoubtedly the grandiose “Strawberry Wine,” an epic, winding journey through Adams’s attempt to come to terms with his own aging process. In contrast to the chaotic pace of “Sadness,” “Strawberry Wine” meanders leisurely through eight minutes. His mellow voice and effortless musical talents allow the listener to envision the ebbing tide of a rockstar’s life under the glare of a media spotlight, minus the tragedy of it all.
But frustratingly, Adams still hasn’t found a way to convey these more complex emotions with the verve of earlier classics Heartbreaker and Gold. Tracks like “Twenty Nine” collapse under their own weight and kill any momentum the album builds. Elsewhere, “Starlight Diner” feels rushed and underdeveloped. Hedged in by “Sadness” and the funny, rambling “Carolina Rain,” the track just gets lost.
In fact, Adams himself seems a little lost – only time will tell if he’ll ever really find himself.
Rating: 2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars