Ryan Adams, ‘Demolition’ (Lost Highway)
If rock’n’roll were high school, Ryan Adams would be the faintly irritating yet firecracker-hot 2001 valedictorian–acing history, kicking it with that cute young chem teacher, cruising local college girls, spinning righteous bullshit in the parking lot.
His streak began with 2000’s Heartbreaker, an indie gem that opened with an argument over Morrissey’s “Suedehead,” nodded to Dylan old and new, and even got dour Dust Bowlers Gillian Welch and David Rawlings to rock out. Then his mid-’90s alt-country band, Whiskeytown, dropped its impressive swan song, Pneumonia. Finally, there was the flag-wrapped, major-label Gold, with the serendipitous “New York, New York”–a Mellencamp-y love letter to the city featuring a video shot in the shadow of the Twin Towers a few days before September 11. By year’s end, Adams had befriended Elton John (father figure to many overachieving rock and rap boys) and dated Winona Ryder (a rite of passage for many of those same boys).
All this apparently left him feeling mighty ambitious, and he crowed to a few too many journalists that he had four albums ready for 2002. But given the economy, he has (wisely) downscaled. A single disc culled from those LP sessions, Demolition is a fairly humble set that plays more to No Depression readers than VH1 viewers, conjuring college radio as Gold did vintage ’70s AOR.
Like Gold, it plays its trump first: “Nuclear” is a freshman-week anthem for the ages, with a melody that soars over the quad like a 165g Frisbee launched from a third-floor dorm window. “This / Is where the summer ends / In a flash of pure destruction” he croons in an immaculate Paul Westerberg nicotine-phlegm gargle, with a woozy pedal steel added as Southern-man territorial pissing. It’s Adams at his soulful,hyperstudious peak.
There’s similar brilliance scattered across Demolition. See the faltering melody of “Cry on Demand,” a heartbreaker on which he pushes his voice up into the blue-sky range of Texas alt-country forebear Jimmie Dale Gilmore. There’s the similarly fragile “Tomorrow,” an aching ballad with Welch that nearly nods into a morphine reverie. And “Tennessee Sucks” is important proof that the songwriter doesn’t worship every locale he visits. I mean, from “Macon, Georgia County Line” and “Oh My Sweet Carolina” to “New York, New York” and “Dear Chicago,” Adams sends more regional shoutouts than the most market-savvy hip-hopper.
Like Gold, however, Demolition suffers from a versatility that can seem precocious and unfocused. Lesser tracks often come off like mimicry; he begins “Jesus (Don’t Touch My Baby)” with a sepulchral murmur that tries to out-Leonard Cohen Leonard Cohen. And while there’s nothing wrong with sensitivity, lines like “I’m the rag-doll boy with broken eyes” (“She Wants to Play Hearts”) are pushing it.
Demolition ultimately plays like what it is–a shuffle mix of sessions–but it holds together better as an LP thanGold. There’s more logic to the sequencing, and it isn’t trying quite so hard to prove its mettle; the very fact that Adams was able to edit himself down to 13 tracks from a potential four-CD set is a good sign. He’s clearly passed his entrance exams at this point; if he hasn’t yet channeled his Phi Beta Kappa promise into the perfect LP, give him time. There are still classes to audit, beds to warm, and heartbreaks to weather.