Rock N Roll
n a trip to the North Carolina coast last weekend, I happened to drive through the forgettable flatlands of Jacksonville, home of the Camp Lejune Marine Corps base and the birthplace of David Ryan Adams. The prototypical military town, Jacksonville seems like the ideal place to be if you want to buy a lap dance, get a tattoo, or have a bunch of jarheads kick the shit out of you. If it was at all difficult to tell where the town's allegiances lie, one need look no further than the endless parade of "Welcome Home" banners that stretched for miles across both sides of the interstate, reminders that Jacksonville's favorite sons will always be its most transient, and that this otherwise typical Southern burg will always be less concerned with Stonewall than Saddam.
Desperate to get through this backwater Buttfuck, it struck me that Jacksonville didn't seem like the kind of place you would expect to give birth to an alt-country idol like Ryan Adams, with all its musty provincialism and agrarian sentiment burned off in favor of ever-ready existentialist dread, but it did seem like the perfect place to produce a unrepentantly populist rock star, like Ryan Adams.
In fact, listening to his newest album, the insufferably vacuous Rock 'n' Roll, it's hard to convince myself that the former Ryan, the muss-haired, mercurial Whiskeytown frontman responsible for such heartrendingly beautiful, lyrically devastating songs as "Mining Town," "Houses on the Hill," and, yes, "Jacksonville Skyline," ever really existed in the first place.
Sure, the music is there whenever I want to hear it, but just like with punk or hip-hop, country music thrives on a completely bullshit commodity known as authenticity. Except that when Mark E. Smith or KRS-One or Merle Haggard makes a shitty fucking record, authenticity is all they've got.
So it's not just that Ryan's eroded all the goodwill I had stored up for him, it's that he's also managed to cast dispersions over the music he's made that I did happen to like, a bit of unintentional revisionism that began with the dutiful dad-rock of 2001's Gold (still a solid album, but Ryan had lost that high-lonesome catch in his voice that used to make me shudder, and replaced it with a disingenuous pop-palatable croon), continued with the scattershot Demolition, and reaches its nadir with the faceless sub-radio fodder of Rock 'n' Roll.
In such a calculated, careerist light, even Ryan's prodigious neo-Parsons sketchwork seems like a deliberate inroad to mainstream accreditation, the kind of cred-building marginalia that forces critics and fans to forever consider you an 'artist' no matter how much corporate rock you later happen to shill.
In other words, it's not that Ryan has lost his fastball so much as he spent years nibbling the corners before deciding to bring the heat. The problem is that with Rock 'n' Roll, he's left one right over the fat part of the plate.
In fact, Ryan's only hope (heh, if this was 1977 I would have been obligated to say 'no pun intended') is that I might be able to concoct a scenario that at least somewhat exonerates him.
The relative merit of the record itself, on the other hand, is not an issue, because there's no question whatsoever that it's an absolute pantload. The opener, "This is It," sounds trite and monochromatic on first blush, but turns out to be one of the album's brighter spots, with a chorus that delivers the kind of dim-bulb wonder that could have made this pseudo-'Placemats shtick forgivable. Unfortunately, only "So Alive" and "Luminol" manage to recapture that dumbed-down anthemic glory, and instead it's the sexless glam of "Shallow" and "1974," the toothless, over-polished garage-rock of "Note to Self: Don't Die" and "Do Miss America," and the self-pitying, ivory-tinkling inanities of the title track that prove to be the rule.
Now, it's no secret that Lost Highway rejected Ryan's first attempt at an official follow-up to Gold, the far drearier, gauzier Love is Hell, and that in response Ryan returned to the studio and fired off an ostensible "rock" record that was then branded with the mind-numbingly vapid title Rock 'n' Roll (Lost Highway ultimately decided to release Love is Hell in piecemeal form as two EPs, and it's a far better collection than Rock 'n' Roll, full of spot-on retreads of 80s Mancurian mope-rock, but still there's the problem of Ryan singing the songs that someone else never wrote rather than the ones he knows he can).
That said, it's quite possible that Rock 'n' Roll might just be a giant Metal Machine Music-esque 'fuck you' to Lost Highway. In that context, Ryan's shameless pillage of the rock canon could be viewed less as a dull exercise in iconography and more as a malignant cross-section of modern-rock raspberries, almost as though he had said, "you want T.Rex, I'll give you Spacehog, you want The Stooges, I'll give you Iggy's new record!"
But you know what, fuck that, I'm tired of self-conscious, mid-life crisis indie-rockers who release out-of-touch, kids'll-love-it MOR, then somehow manage to get off the hook when pomo-mushminded critics spin it as subversive meta-product (see: all apologetic reviews of Liz Phair's latest), so I'm not going to cut Ryan some slack just because he wants to act like Lost Highway forced his hand.
Like those soldiers in his hometown, Ryan also seems to have become transient, eager to mimic whatever warmed-over sound or well-worn pose might help elevate him to the pantheon of rock legend. Sure, Jacksonville seems like the kind of place you'd want to get the hell out of as soon as you can, and I'm sure that Ryan was dreaming bigger than his britches from the very start. But with as much preternatural talent as Ryan once had, I just can't help but wish he had followed his muse rather than his ego on the way out of town.