No matter how hard he tries, Ryan Adams’ brash exterior will never be a composite sketch of all the bad boy images of himself he has compiled in his head. Case in point: Rock N Roll is a fourteen track relapse to 1985 that’ll have you wishing Doc Brown would’ve just smashed the damn Delorean the first time he had the chance.
Acting as the official follow-up to Gold, it replaces the warm, foreboding Love is Hell as the new full-length album, while the latter is being released as two trimmed down EPs. Growing progressively more narcissistic, Adams all but ditches the melancholy, literate posture he upheld during his tenure with alternative country luminaries Whiskeytown; something that followed him into his solo debut Heartbreaker.
An abrasive chord structure guides “This Is It” a sharp, uncompromising homage to the Cure and early U2 with the vocal thrash of Johnny Thunders. Following in lead, “Shallow” and “1974” appear to have been cut from the same swath; the sound of the guitars, the air beneath Adams’ fingers, and the undeniable spite hanging from every word.
The album peaks with the effervescent “Anybody Want to Take Me Home” Adams’ shining moment on Rock N Roll. Built with an addictive hook, soaring guitars playing riffs he copped from Petty, Clapton, and Richards and a vocal croon that’s a reminiscent cocktail of Kurt Cobain and Joan Jett pining for guidance he bellows, “I am in the twilight of my youth / not that I’m going to remember,” one of the album’s most honest moments.
However, moments like those were watered down and eventually washed out by the overwhelming onslaught of lyrical missteps. Adams loses himself in the sea of insider references (Joy Division, N.W.A and the Verve) and artificial cynicism he’s made for himself and as a result the material suffers. Moments throughout Rock N Roll show signs of apathy, laziness and languor a stark contrast from his earlier works which displayed his lyrical prowess and the strength of his alternative country roots.
On the other side of the equation, Adams’ abridged LP turned dual-EPs Love is Hell shows a side of the singer/songwriter that’s had time to percolate. Lyrically and musically sound, it follows in the footsteps of Gram Parsons, Walter Hyatt and alternative country pioneers Uncle Tupelo in recreating the lush, theatrical sounds of Americana.
The brittle, gentleness of “Political Scientist” watches a piano waltz over the depressing tale of urbanization and pollution where he lyrically draws correlations to the degradation of the human self. “Afraid Not Scared” is a cold, bitter reflection on a life slowly losing meaning as the world slowly builds around you while “This House is Not for Sale” caps off the trilogy in dramatic fashion with Adams pleading, “Tell them that this house is not for sale / and calm down.”
And while most surprising aspect of the EP is Adams’ beautifully melancholy take on the Oasis hit, “Wonderwall,” he nearly escapes the same pitfalls as Rock N Roll. However, this time around brevity is on his side, and Love is Hell proves to be one of the most brutally honest releases of the year.
Rock N Roll, Lost Highway: 2 1/2 stars
Love is Hell Pt.1, Lost Highway: 3 stars