29, by Ryan Adams
In listening to the music of Ryan Adams, it becomes evident very quickly that there is very little change or development in the material that he records. To be sure, the songs are different from one album to another. Some albums emphasize different aspects of the moods of melancholy, and focus on different aspects of the self-destructive and alcoholic and violent tendencies the singer has been prone to show, but all the same the material in Ryan Adams’ body of work has a very narrow emotional range and that means that someone who is one of the artists fans has some degree of confidence of knowing the general sort of songs that will appear from one album to the next. Ryan Adams is no Beck, after all, not one to drastically change his approach from one album to the next. Instead all of the albums I have heard from him are Americana, country-adjacent, filled with tales of drinking and gloominess and concerns about failed relationships and the threat of prison or early death or a life lived with a deep degree of sorrow and self-loathing. And that is precisely the sort of material we find here on this album.
This particular album is only nine songs, but many of those songs are very long and as a result the album is pretty long overall, surprisingly so in fact. The album opens with “29,” a song that discusses drinking and violence and perhaps some thoughts about what it means to grow up a bit and perhaps not mature as quickly as one would hope. This is followed by “Strawberry Wine,” a very lengthy ode to the effects of alcoholism through various perspectives. After that comes “Nightbirds,” a song that again deals with the emptiness in side that sprang apparently from childhood. “Blue Sky Blues” shows that even blue skies are the cause for suffering for the truly melancholy soul. “Carolina Rain” is a lengthy epic story of a screwed up man who marries a woman to get closer to another woman and deals with the death of children and violence. “Starlite Diner” is another song that deals with drugs and friends and the nighttime. “The Sadness” deals with broken people in broken relationships. “Elizabeth, You Were Born To Play That Part” deals with more co-dependent relationships and personal misery. And the album ends with “Voices,” which also deals with the theme of madness and not being able to come to terms with one’s own mental health.
It seems baffling to me that Ryan Adams as an artist would be cancelled. For one, as an artist he has never been all that popular. None of his albums have even sold a million copies. He has had a small degree of consistent support within the AAA genre making melancholy music about violent and self-destructive alcoholics, presumably speaking from his own personal experience. No one who listens to this album or looks at the lyrics (which are included in the liner notes) will fail to recognize the essential elements of his music and approach, and just about any album of his you listen to (and this is the second of third I have tried myself) will give you the same sort of raw material to come to the conclusion that Ryan Adams was a talented artist of limited emotional range who covered the same ground of gin-soaked reflections and remorse and co-dependency over and over and over again. It would be futile to expect anything different, because the same cycle of drunkenness punctuated by attempts to sober up, have been present within his career for the better part of two decades now. Why should we expect anything different from him now?