Playing God
Ryan Adams - The 2005 Output

according to, Ryan Adams has written at least 600 songs since 1994. That’s roughly three albums worth of songs per year for more than a decade, and while those aren’t Robert Pollard-sized numbers (he’s released well over 1,000 tracks in roughly the same time frame), Adams’ prolific output has engendered the same criticism as the now-former Guided By Voices frontman: quantity waters down the quality. So with a trio of full-lengths hitting the shelves in the span of eight months during 2005, it’s time to play God with Ryan Adams

First, let’s consider the recording parameters in order of release: the double-disc Cold Roses, a set Dead-icated to 70s roots rock; Jacksonville City Nights, his best album and closest to his roots in Whiskeytown; 29, the erratic and insular song-by-year farewell to his roaring 20s. Non-album stuff to draw from includes a dozen other songs scattered across UK singles, Japan-only tracks, an iTunes exclusive, and the limited-edition version of Jacksonville City Nights. That’s 55 songs to whittle down from, and thank me (God) that that total doesn’t include the unreleased songs Adams played live last year but didn’t bother to record (yet.)

Adams validates his knack for a memorable hook in this exercise, and kicking out the musical filler is fairly easy. Lyrically, he spends most of his capital on tales of unrequited love, so it’s not difficult to weave together a coherent narrative from all of the available material. God is only looking for a dozen or so great tracks and not an equal representation from a particular body of work, so anything’s fair game as long it was officially available in 2005. The goal is an album as enjoyable as Heartbreaker or even Gold, Adams’ most hopeful projects as a solo artist.

01. A Kiss Before I Go (Jacksonville City Nights, track 1)
Loose without sounding lazy, Adams created great expectations with this leadoff from Jacksonville City Nights. “One shot, one beer, and a kiss before I go” is classic American country, delivered so effortlessly that we’re reminded of Adams once-obvious skill with a hook. Adams’ vocal homage to Hank Sr. borders on excessive, but the steel guitar is perfect in a way that only a non-Nashville player could lay it down. Lyrically, he sets the stage for what will be the undoing of a relationship with a night of drinking.

02. Sweet Illusions (Cold Roses disc one, track 2)
The more Ryan Adams drifts from his Westerberg-ian rasp and into his upper register, the less evocative his vocals are and the more he seems to be searching for someone other than himself. He stays under control in this morning-after lament, the tinge of regret in his voice giving way to an earnest plea for redemption. The strength of the lead guitar line is compelling and drifts in and about the song wearily, affirming Adams’ woes.

03. Let It Ride (Cold Roses disc two, track 2)
Upbeat with a surprisingly intricate arrangement, “Let It Ride” seems written as a single. Much of Cold Roses wanders in the spirit of the Grateful Dead, and while the country picking here is a familiar style to Deadheads, it’s the dark lead guitar line that makes this track distinctly Adams’. Whereas “Sweet Illusions” begs of regret, this follow-up shows reflexive anger to move on and find someone else.

04. Words (Elizabethtown iTunes Music Store exlcusive, track 1)
Much of the filler in Adam’s catalog is sparse stuff like “Words,” so it seems like a mistake to purposely avoid all of it. A simple ditty about how words are, well, just words, the track is neither as poignant as Adams wants it to be nor as outright tragic. For this Playing God, it serves as turning point lyrically and musically towards the contemplative middle of the album.

05. Night Birds (29, track 3)
There are many things to dislike about the unfocused 29—the lead/title track embarrassingly rips off the Dead’s “Truckin’” and the album never really recovers. “Night Birds” features some of his trademark piano chording and loads of the falsetto that he’s fallen in love with in recent years; take away the reverb overdrive from the last minute of the song, and this is salvageable.

06. Hard Way To Fall (Jacksonville City Nights, track 3)
Adams may be a little impulsive about releasing music, but one thing’s for sure: the Cardinals are a very good backing band for him, right up there with Whiskeytown. He still seems a little shifty about letting another woman have a Caitlyn Cary-sized vocal role, but when Adams is singing in his lower register and guitar player J.P. Bowersock is hot on the steel, a song like “Hard Way To Fall” revives the good old days with much gusto.

07. When Will You Come Back Home (Cold Roses disc one, track 4)
At this point in the playlist, Adams is woeful about what he’s done (“I’m always moving too fast”) and realizing that the romance is over. But musically, the song is hopeful with rays of sunshine poking through the first few bars of acoustic guitar. The title (which serves as the chorus) is almost rhetorical because of the music, a deft composition from a guy who doesn’t often do things that way.

08. My Heart Is Broken (Jacksonville City Nights, track 10)
Originally released on double 7” in 1997 with Whiskeytown, this version of “My Heart Is Broken” puts a quick step into the tempo and kicks the forlorn vocal delivery to the side of the road in favor of barroom cheer; it’s a surprising remake but undoubtedly better. Thematically, it’s Adams telling us that he’s lonely, but the arrangement says he’s moving ahead fine, thank you.

09. The Hardest Part (Jacksonville City Lights, track 5)
For “The Hardest Part,” Adams hits the road and tries to reconcile love that he’s not quite sure how he lost. Rooted in acoustic guitar and fiddle, this country shuffler is a nod to Whiskeytown and the people who loved that band. “The hardest part is loving somebody that cares for you,” he sings, lamenting that his lack of vulnerability may leave him forever lonely.

10. Dance All Night (Cold Roses disc two, track 6)
With its wailing harmonica and Pneumonia-era melody, this song would have been a better fit on Jacksonville City Nights than Cold Roses, where it stands surrounded by a handful of more typically modern compositions. Here, Adams spends a night at the bar watching his former lover from a distance, satisfied that they’re better off apart.

11. Mangolia Mountain (Cold Roses disc one, track 1)
Playing God winds down with ruminations about where Adams has been and where he’s going with love. “Magnolia Mountain” clocks in at nearly six minutes, and it’s a strange leadoff for Cold Roses The lead guitar work bears a strong resemblance to Jerry Garcia’s playing, and the backing steel guitar glides in tandem for a sleepy country effect. In concert, Adams has a tendency to drag a song like this into nowheresville, but surprisingly, the extended riffing here is tasteful and appropriate.

12. The End (Jacksonville City Nights, track 2)
We have to end with “The End”, not only because Adams doesn’t do it on Jacksonville City Nights, but also because it makes an easy lyrical endpoint in this exercise. The song reaches towards his country roots, and while his warbling vocal affection seems forced rather than earnest, Adams’ admissions about how his dreams will always be restrained by his hometown are intriguing.

By: John Davidson
Published on: 2006-02-06
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