The third album this year from the prolific Ryan Adams, following Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights, is easily the best. It may be his best work since Gold, offering a welcome respite from the slough of despond in which Adams has languished since the Love Is Hell two-parter cast a pall of gloom over his muse a couple of years back.
Which is not to say that 29 is exactly a party album - in fact, there's a pronounced melancholy to these nine long songs. The difference is the presence once again of producer Ethan Johns, Adams's right-hand man on Heartbreaker and Gold. Well attuned to the singer's emotional vagaries, Johns has ensured that these songs are sensitively arranged - not forced into tight corners, but allowed to settle, like mist, into their appropriate form.
In the case of the title-track which opens proceedings, that's something like the Grateful Dead's "Truckin", a jogalong boogie restrained from developing rockabilly panache. It's an autobiographical piece tracking Adams's feckless period in New York, "loaded on ephedrine, looking for downers and coke", unable to occupy his time satisfactorily, and lucky to get through it alive. "Most of my friends are married and making them babies/ To most of them, I already died," he observes, unapologetically acknowledging that in his case, "you can't hang on to something that won't stop moving".
The rest of 29 is more elegiac, with a haunted sense of solitude hanging over "Starlite Diner", and the contemplative piano ballads "Nightbirds" and "Blue Sky Blues". The episodic, drifting narrative of "Carolina Rain" features evocative images of entropy, missed opportunities, deceit and defeat, while "Elizabeth, You Were Born to Play That Part" has the hapless, hurt tone appropriate to a song with such a Morrissey-esque title. "Every night it seems like there's no tomorrow," sighs Adams, adding wanly, "Not that you will ever know."
Most memorable is the eight-minute "Strawberry Wine", a Neil Young-ish elegy for a friend that finds Adams drifting through offhand observations such as, "Can you still have famous last words if you're somebody nobody knows?", ultimately realising that he must cast off his gloom before he's too old to break out of it, "'cause it's getting winter, and if I want any flowers, I gotta get my seeds into the ground".
Here, as throughout, Johns resists the urge to embellish unnecessarily, relying on a simple accompaniment of acoustic guitar fattened with 12-string and ukelele. 29 is a sterling return to the form that had Adams tagged as one of the great talents of his generation.
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