Supposedly true thing about Tom Cruise: When he enters a roomful of strangers, he slinks around, scopes out the most charismatic person, and starts copying his or her traits. Whether this means that Cruise has no personality of his own or that he’s just a brilliant mimic, who can say? What definitely can be said is that the most charismatic band in New York right now is the Strokes. Ryan Adams is on record as a fan; he once claimed that he was recording a note-for-note version of their album Is This It. Instead, he made Rock N Roll. It’s his first real record since 2001’s Gold, and, perhaps, a Cruise-like bid to shed the worn flannel of alt country once and for all, step into the Strokes’ scuffed Converses, and grab the keys to the city.
Except where the Strokes are cool and smart in a winningly assembled way-pounding that four-four, pulsing like a strobe light-Adams sounds like a guy who’s coming apart at the seams. Sample titles: “Anybody Wanna Take Me Home,” “Note to Self: Don’t Die,” “The Drugs Not Working.” He names another song “Luminol,” after the crime-scene chemical that detects blood traces. Indeed, there are plenty of white and red blood cells spilled across these tracks.
Adams plays most of the instruments himself, and there are guest appearances by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, Melissa Auf Der Maur, and Adams’ girlfriend, Parker Posey. He swaps pedal-steel filigree for synthesizers, and everywhere the guitars are cranked, the sneakers set on stun. “It’s totally fucked up / I’m totally fucked up” he sings, half in the mirror and half in the bag. We haven’t had a drunk do such sexy standup comedy since Paul Westerberg went solo and sober, and it’s hard to tell if this is one more guise from a skeezy blowhard or a moment of truth. He’s like Bill Clinton at Waterloo, but what the hell: Even shape shifters can have epiphanies. This feels like one.