Album: Ryan Adams
Rock N Roll, Lost Highway
Friday 31 October 2003
With the aptly titled Rock N Roll, the roots-rock wunderkind Ryan Adams continues his feverish progress toward the mainstream, leaving his folk and country-rock origins as diminishing specks in the rear-view mirror. But, unlike his 2001 breakthrough tour de force, Gold, this album prompts one to ask where, exactly, he believes he's going.
He remains the most prolific songwriter of his era - since Gold, Adams has released the catch-up demos compilation Demolition, and yet another full album was shelved by his record label, which apparently considered it too depressing and requested a more emotionally palatable replacement. So Adams returned to his bottomless well of hooks, riffs and heartaches and delivered the 14 songs that make up Rock N Roll - which, appropriately enough for a replacement album, features more than a little of the kind of infectious, glorious-loser swagger perfected by The Replacements, the Minnesotan punk-pop pioneers led by the gifted Paul Westerberg, Adams's Eighties precursor as songwriting prodigy.
The album opens with the anthemic "This Is It", which effortlessly apes the hoarse delivery and whiplash chords of The Replacements' raggedy raunch, along with lines - "I kiss her on her teeth/ Let me sing a song for you that alters your belief" - that could have slipped straight out of the Westerberg songbook. It's a great opener, commanding and euphoric, setting up expectations that, sadly, the rest of the album just can't live up to, as Adams digs into his capacious bag of influences and comes up with a series of (admittedly heartfelt) pastiches of latter-day rock giants. There's the Nirvana-esque immersion in misery of "Note to Self: Don't Die"; the Strokes-style wiry, chugging riffs and dispassionate disdain of "Burning Photographs" and "Luminol"; the Smiths-meet-REM plangent self-pity of "Anybody Wanna Take Me Home"; the surly, Oasis-like panache of "Shallow"; and, most grating of all, the awful U2 copy "So Alive", with its Edge-y vibrato guitar riff and Adams's embarrassing impression of Bono's vaunting vocal manner.
It's no secret that Adams can crank out catchy simulacra such as these without breaking stride; but, unlike on previous albums, that's now beginning to look as much his millstone as his making. Even allowing for his undoubted knack for adhesive hooks and memorably melancholy one-liners - my favourite being "I am in the twilight of my youth/ Not that I'm going to remember" - it's hard to regard Rock N Roll as anything other than an exercise in rock classicism with no innovating spirit whatsoever - which some would claim is the most crucial requirement of a true rock'n'roll genius. And even if it's not, he needs to ask himself: is this really the right time to be adopting Oasis's musical manner and magpie methodology?
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