RYAN ADAMS – ” Chris, Romeo & Juliet, FM, Devolver “

Posted: May 1, 2023 in MUSIC

Ryan Adams’ “Chris” double album recorded and released in 2022. “Chris” is the first in a series of four original studio albums released by Ryan Adams in the calendar year.

“I don’t care if artists are assholes.” I was listening to an episode of the Bret Easton Ellis podcast this morning and he and his guest were discussing Warren Zevon, the Los Angeles songwriter who died of mesothelioma in 2003. Zevon was a brilliant artist who also was a real jerk in life, especially after a few glasses of vodka. However, it was the ‘70s and Zevon’s legacy lives on. How things have changed… changed a lot.

Fallen rocker Ryan Adams has finally dropped “Chris,” the final installment of the trilogy which started with “Wednesdays” (released in 2020) and continued with “Big Colors” (released in 2021). “Chris” is available on streaming platforms in a week, but fans can already download mp3s via Adams’s Paxam shop. For Adams, things fell apart in 2019, but he is doing everything he can to recover his career, releasing albums and booking shows, despite the current hostile climate

Despite some style variation from song to song, “Chris” is a rocker, but it’s also a long album that offers a lot to digest at the first take. With 18 songs plus a bonus, Ryan Adams had definitively a lot of songs in store. The overall sound of the album is also quite different from the melancholic “Wednesdays,” the saddest of all three, and the ‘80s-inspired “Big Colors.” Some people have said that “Chris” is the closest that Adams has been from his earlier work, but this is also the most confident he has been for a long time.

With its life-affirming chorus, the opener “Take it Back” has a big rocking allure and almost sounds like a Springsteen song – or insert the name of any big rock star of the ‘90s. The Springsteen vibe sort of continues throughout the album with the more pensive “Still a Cage,” or the rhythmic guitars of “Moving Target” – which has one of the best melodic hooks of the album  – or even the optimism of  “Letting the Light In.” At these moments, Adams definitively sounds undefeated. Layered guitars supply some strong rocking muscles to “Flicker in the Fade,” and “So Helpless” succeeds in the same manner, combining remarkable shortness with efficiency.

The album seems to alternate between full rockers and more melancholic tunes like the self-titled “Chris,” with a nervous guitar rattling behind raw vocals while strings and piano lines slowly flesh out the song. Surprisingly, the song doesn’t seem to be about his brother as the album cover art would have let us think first. Since Adams sings about a “friend” and laments about his death –“Wonder where you went/Will I ever see you again” – this has led people to think that the song is probably about the Cardinal’s bass player, Chris Feinstein, who passed away in 2009. However, the fact that he and Adams’s brother share the same first name transforms the track into a moving double tribute.

There’s certainly quite of sonic diversity among the 19 songs: beautifully layered guitar and piano keys shine during the melancholic “Crooked Shake” while emotive strings swell the arrangements of “Was I Wrong.” Ryan Adams’ vocals are at their most fragile during the delicate acoustic guitar of “I Got Lost,” whereas ‘80s reverb sound is fully alive during “About Time.” “Say What You Said” has the Ryan Adams heartbreak stamp all over its reverb guitars, and a harmonica is added in the mix of the upbeat “Lookout.” The explosive guitars of “Spinning Wheel” add an alt-country flavour, but the bonus track, “Don’t Follow,” sadly gives me some Bon Jovi vibes. However,  this is one occasion for Adams to let himself go with rage and rock abandon in a blast of rock guitars.

If several tracks supposedly date from the “Prisoner” sessions, or sound “like “Prisoner” B-sides” (as some die-hard fans have said), the album is a mix of different vibes going back and forth between an acoustic feel serving Adams’s heartbreak tunes and his 2017 arena-ambition signature rockers. “Prisoner” had a theme, it was a breakup album, but “Chris” doesn’t seem to have one, it could well be his last gift to his late brother, but it sounds more like a more or less eclectic collection of songs, including some that could have been on “Big Colors,” and other ones that could be regarded as leftovers from previous sessions. In other words, Ryan Adams is not reinventing himself with this new album, but there’s no doubt he will get strong reactions from his loyal fans for the big hair rockers, the ‘80s power ballads, or the trademark heartaches.

After just one or two listens, it’s clear that “Chris” is not the work of a defeated man, some songs even resonate as triumphant, blasting a loud “I’m back” in the ears of anyone who is willing to listen. After these past rough years, this is reassuring to see that Ryan Adams’s craft is still strong. However, because of his official cancellation by all media, “Chris” will not make an impact deeper than the circles of what’s left of his fan base. The question is: would the album have made a significant impression in other circumstances?

Ryan Adams’ “Romeo & Juliet” double album recorded and released in 2022. “Romeo & Juliet” is the second in the series of four original studio albums released by Ryan Adams in the calendar year. “Romeo & Juliet” follows the first in series – another double album titled “Chris”.

Ryan Adams must be the most prolific artist we currently have: barely a month ago, he dropped the third album of a trilogy, and he has just released a new double album, “Romeo & Juliet.” The new project is digitally available via his label PAXAM for about three weeks before getting a widespread release This will happen just in time for Adams’s return to live shows on the East Coast in mid-May, after a long absence from the stage.

So, what’s going on? Is Ryan clearing out the vaults? It seems there’s a bit of this as the album sometimes sounds like an amalgam of recordings from different sessions done throughout the years, with different levels of production. I am certainly not a Ryan Adams specialist, but it’s not a secret that the song titled “In the Meadow” is supposedly from the final Cardinals album.

It’s a beautiful and elaborated one, recorded with a full band, unfolding a memorable guitar work above a wobbling organ followed by an explosive orchestration jamming like a Grateful Dead song. Whether you are a hardcore fan or not, it’s impossible to ignore the triumphant tone of the song, which has all the trademarks of Adams’s more rootsy sound and shows a departure from the ‘80s-inspiration of “Big Colors.” But if it’s an older song, it makes complete sense.

“Doylestown Girl,” which was released in 2019 as a single since it was supposed to be included on “Big Colors” (but wasn’t), has this strummed Americana ballad vibe and a bittersweet heartbreaker for a story. The song received extremely positive press in January 2019, pre-scandal, but in 2022 Adams is fully aware he is now completely on his own: “No label. No manager. No distributor. No reviews. No press. No radio…… No problem.,” he posted at one point on his Instagram page.

“Romeo & Juliet is a summer album” he also wrote in a post on IG. “It’s maybe the first summertime album I’ve ever made, on purpose, front to back. It’s like the tall, long slightly mysterious sister to “Easy Tiger“. There’s a lot of room here and the stories all unwind like a long hot drive in the south with the windows down – sunshine blasting everything. And by the time the record ends it’s just early night – still blue notes in the dark purple patches of stars up the road hurling towards the hood of the car.” 

 There’s still a bit of that Springsteen spirit throughout the album – like during the opener “Rollercoaster” – but the album is sonically varied and overall, it is a very dynamic album, and probably more passionate than his other recent ones.

Even a track with rootsy guitars, like the bucolic “In the Blue of the Night” partially sung with a Neil Young falsetto, progresses with thunder and an interesting outlaw country riff. There’s a lot of creativity at every detour, there’s a lot of inventiveness in every song, whether you consider the bold catchy chorus of “I Can’t Remember,” or the titled track, a tragic acoustic ballad, or the wobbling keys of “Anything,” which almost delivers a retro Motown feel, or the pretty melancholic guitars of “Poor Connection,” or a few other acoustic songs such as the touching ode to Adams’s departed cat, “Theo is Dreaming.” “Something Missing” sounds unfinished or a bit odd to my ears – some may call it a demo – although it is an interesting departure from the rest, whereas “Run” reminds me of old (and beloved) Ryan Adams territory, with a chorus that everyone could sing at the top of their lungs.

Lyrically, besides the usual heartbreak songs, one of the themes of the album could be his beloved cat Theo, as three songs (“This is Your House,” “At Home With the Animals,” and “Theo Is Dreaming”) are feline-inspired tunes. Ryan Adams’s fans are probably still attached to the concept of a cohesive album, and they may struggle a bit to find it here. However, tracks count much more than albums today, and “Romeo & Juliet” is quite the collection of tracks!

I would say I will probably prefer it to “Chris.” However, this is a very long album (19 songs plus 2 bonus tracks) and there’s certainly a lot to process at once. This represents a lot of hooky choruses, a lot of lyrics, a lot of variation in style and tone, but finally a lot of memorable songs, an impression I didn’t really have when listening to “Chris.” I don’t really care about the heterogeneous aspect of the album – I am also not a recording engineer, and I am sure a lot of inconsistencies in the production noted by some people have escaped me. Sure, many of these songs should originally have appeared on other records, sure some songs sound much more modest in production than others, but there’s still an overall tone. There is a bright force at the center of “Romeo & Juliet,” it is an album that reveals itself as a spirited and fierce one, exuding an impassioned young love (like its title), and reflecting the most ardent season that inspired it:

Ryan Adams’ “FM” recorded and released in 2022. “FM” is the third in the series of four original studio albums released by Ryan Adams in this calendar year. “FM” follows the double albums “Chris” and “Romeo & Juliet” in the series follows the first in series.

“FM” is a great rock and roll album.

“Chris” was earlier this year. But what it certainly is is the best straight up, 70s-80s inspired, golden age of FM piece of work with ringing guitars, inspired Tom Petty steals, solos, soul takes, and while a completely unmistakable Adams, it is both generic and unique, nostalgic and fresh.

Anybody who has been paying attention has noted how Ryan’s divorce from Mandy Moore precipitated a “me too” moment that destroyed his career. Earlier this year he released the final two thirds off what amounts to his life during wartime trilogy, “Chris” has been one of the best albums of the year since its release and “Romeo + Juliet” is nearly as good. His sold out Carnegie Hall gig back in May (here) grounded him in greatness, and “FM” is a finishing to his own private Idaho and finds him still a king of singer songwriter confessionals and also genre busting hard rock.

The ten song, 32 minute, sound of Ryan rocking (he would need a band behind him to sell it on stage), is sublime in its simplicity, it stands alone as a beautiful, song for song, collection connected with a sound that used to take the Heartbreakers to create. It owes nothing expressly here, except the penultimate track “Do You Feel” where he gets awful close to plagiarism with “Let’s Go Crazy” riffing all the way through. The rest of them are subjective interpretation and even including the too close for comfort moments there is nothing here to be improved upon. Whether you want to hear guitar epics like “Wild And Hopeless” and “Fairweather” or the built for AM and FM radio “Fantasy File” and openers “I Want You” and “Love Me Don’t”, all topped off a tender soulfulness and his pained singing, he doesn’t let you down.

Ryan Adams’ “Devolver” recorded and released in 2022. “Devolver” is the fourth and final original studio album released by Ryan Adams in the calendar year. “Devolver” follows the double albums “Chris” and “Romeo & Juliet” and third album “FM”

Six weeks after Ryan Adam’s fourth album of 2022, “Devolver”, was given away free to fans, and now it has reached streaming services. Of the four albums, it is both pretty darn good and not as pretty darn good. With everything that has happened to Ryan over the past three years (and he is the only person in the world for whom the pandemic was lucky) and with his return to the battle with zero backing, he still feels a debt of gratitude (“Devolver” is Portuguese for to pay back) to the hoi polloi and what we get is some minor Ryan but good enough Ryan.

From the deep emotional bottoming out of “Chris” and “Romeo And Juliet” to “Devolver”, the weight of the previous two albums evolves into a mainstream Cardinals-ish set of hard rock with guitars and electric on a set of ultimately unmemorable songs. Ryan is in fine voice, the rock songs rock and the less rockier songs rock lesser, an acoustic strum like “Free Your Self” has its counterpoint on the exactly what you think it is, “Banging On My Head”.

The better moments, the amusingly irrelevant “Too Bored To Run” is Adams with a good joke that rings with atmosphere, but it is all moments here and there; I have never heard an Adams album with less hooks per square inch. By the end nothing has stuck and the net result is an album that sounds like third tier rockers that didn’t make the cut the first time round. In other words: not bad but no more than not bad.

Ryan has had a great couple years, two terrific albums, an acoustic tour, and now a third. Come home, Ryan. All is forgiven.

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