et’s run the numbers: in the seven years comprising Ryan Adams’ solo career, the alt-country icon/pariah has recorded seven single albums, one double album, and two EPs of nearly album-length duration. And Pneumonia, the third and final recording by Adams’ former band, Whiskeytown, as well as the countless bootlegs he recorded that never officially saw the light of day.
Adams’ prolificacy has played havoc with his legacy, but he nevertheless retains a level of goodwill few other artists who have delivered so inconsistently can claim. That’s because when Adams isn’t disappointing, he’s disarmingly enthralling. His plethora of middling to merely good albums contains enough material for three or four fantastic ones, and three or four albums is what most comparable artists would release in seven years. It’s only been eighteen months since Adams released 29. For most bands, that’s a rapid turn-around; for Adams, it’s a lengthy hiatus.
The break, on the face of it, should be exactly what Adams’ career required. Maintaining his usual fecundity, he could be expected to have amassed a wealth of material during this period, and with only one album to spread it across, Easy Tiger should be a cohesive, focused work that includes all the staggering highlights but none of the tepid diversions or half-assed experiments.
The album partly lives up to that expectation. Easy Tiger is concise and reasonably consistent in both sound and quality, rarely straying far from the lovelorn, semi-acoustic country balladry that is apparently most natural to Adams. Unlike previous efforts, it isn’t an album that suggests obvious cuts. The result is a handful of excellent songs, such as the aching, bruised “Two” or the magnificently downtrodden “The Sun Also Sets,” and a multitude of respectably pleasant ones. Adams has quite a way with an alt-country weeper, and on a disc composed of little else, the quality level never dips below the merely solid “Rip Off.”
One of the few tracks that doesn’t play to type is “Halloweenhead,” the sort of Replacements-recalling, rootsy rocker that Adams loves. Amidst its earthy guitar-tones and crisp autumnal hues, he cries, “I’ve got a bad idea again,” and listeners at all familiar with his career know this isn’t necessarily a threat. For all of his ill-considered excursions, much of what makes Adams such an exciting songwriter are his bad ideas, with even his most criticized recordings benefiting from his restless creativity. The slick, punky blast of “Note to Self: Don’t Die” was a rare highlight on Rock ‘n’ Roll, while even the thoroughly unnecessary Demolition included uncharacteristic AM radio rock like “Starting to Hurt” amongst its handful of worthy selections. The promised “bad idea” in “Halloweenhead” is a jubilant cry of “GUITAR SOLO!” preceding the instrumental break, and it’s the one moment on Easy Tiger in which Adams allows his self-deprecating sense of humor to intrude upon the album.
That lack of bad ideas makes him a more consistent artist, but it makes him a slightly less interesting one as well. Easy Tiger has no gospel choir-laden stinkers, but it also has nothing like the gorgeous “Hotel Chelsea Nights,” Adams’ Prince-influenced extravaganza from Love is Hell, Part 2. Outside of “Halloweenhead,” the album’s deviations are barely more extreme than the bluegrass-tinged traditionalism of “Pearls on a String,” or the spare acoustics of “These Girls.” Both songs are beautiful, but the record cries out for a woefully ill-advised dalliance or two.
Instead, Easy Tiger sounds like the kind of album Adams could churn out every 18 months for the rest of his life. If that means we no longer have to sift through hours and hours of music each year to find the 11 tracks worth putting on repeat, so much the better, but it seems a vaguely disappointing state of affairs for an artist with Adams’ talent. Here’s hoping his Halloweenhead doesn’t divest itself of all its bad ideas.
Reviewed by: Jonathan Bradley
Reviewed on: 2007-06-26