Ryan Adams – 29

29 (2005)


1. 29 2. Strawberry Wine 3. Nightbirds 4. Blue Sky Blues 5. Carolina Rain 6. Starlite Diner 7. The Sadness 8. Elizabeth, You Were Born To Play That Part 9. Voices


I suppose props are due to Lost Highway for finally acquiescing to Ryan’s unquenchable work ethic and allowing him to release three albums within seven months of each other in 2005 (Cold Roses came out in May, Jacksonville City Nights in September, and 29, which is really truly honestly the last Ryan Adams album of 2005, I swear, in December). Oh sure, if I were in a cranky mood, I might express puzzlement over why they resisted brilliant works like 48 Hours and The Suicide Handbook while green lighting surefire sales bombs like a straight country album and this dark little oddball of a record. But I ain’t cranky! Unless you count this ten foot metal crank protruding out of my chest. I should probably get that checked out. Besides, over the course of doing these reviews and seeking alternate viewpoints on Ryan’s work all across this fine internet of ours, I have come to realize that many of my least favorite RA albums and songs are for some reason beloved by many others – and vice versa. I mean, there are people out there who actually like Rock N Roll and find Heartbreaker boring! I know, it seems crazy. But if us fans are as incapable of deciding which portions of Ryan’s work are classic and which belong in a pile of feces as Ryan himself seems to be, then I guess it’s best to just put it all out there and let us sort it out for ourselves.

Hence, the notorious ’05 trilogy. This, its final installment, was actually recorded in 2004, prior to the first two, and to the formation of the Cardinals (though it does feature J.P. Bowersock on guitar). Ethan Johns reassumes the producer/multi-instrumentalist role he played on Heartbreaker and 48 Hours, overseeing this nine-song set, each track of which is supposed to represent one year in Ryan’s twenties (2004 being the year he turned 30). But, 29 having been recorded soon after Ryan fell off stage and broke his wrist on the Love Is Hell tour, legend has it our favorite Carolinian troubadour was hooked on painkillers while recording the album (maybe to rip off Jeff Tweedy?). The result makes for easily the weirdest, most eerie listen in Ryan’s catalog. It’s a hard record to love, but not an easy one to hate – parts of it are so genuinely strange (if not from a compositional perspective, than at least from a lyrical and atmospheric one) that I have to at least give Ryan credit for trying something different.

OK, so you won’t hear much of anything different out of the opening title track. In fact, you may be suddenly overcome with the strange sensation that you have heard this song before… and in fact you have, back when it was first written and performed by the Grateful Dead and called “Truckin’.” You may have to reach back to your hazy dope smoking days in the early 70s to access the memory of the first time you heard it, but I guarantee it’s hidden in there, probably somewhere behind the memory of your first hand job and that one time you made eye contact with Joaquin Phoenix as he was coming out of the bathroom in a theater. But what the hell, this is hardly the first time Ryan has been obviously derivative of his influences, right? Besides, the Chuck Berry-style guitars bite nicely and I like the lyrics, which constitute an entertaining travelogue of debauchery. I don’t know how much Ryan is exaggerating about “Teetering stoned off the side of buildings” and “Mixing liquor with mystery pills,” but this is one of those rare instances where his hard livin’ rock star character doesn’t come across as a total put on.

However, the song is atypical of the rest of the album. First, it’s about ten times noisier and upbeat than anything else on here, every other song being quiet, stark piano or acoustic guitar-based tunes with minimal accompaniment (less than half the songs have drums, for instance). Secondly, pretty much the entirety of the album’s remaining lyrics are ludicrously self-important abstract introspection, unfortunately, but Ethan Johns provides a certain sonic brilliance that makes it work at least half the time. More specifically, he close-mics the shit out of everything so that every strum and voice crack is so impeccably clear that it sounds like Ryan is sitting 6 inches from your nose, breathing on the nape of your neck and drooling in your shoulder! This helps create intimacy when the songs themselves are a little too out there to do it themselves. Like the album’s boldest move, “Strawberry Wine,” which is eight minutes of lazy 3/4 guitar strumming and gentle cooing about Gosh knows what. A ukulele comes in to double the strums after the first verse and that’s about the most eventful moment that occurs in the song. And yet I find it pretty and enjoyable and not overlong! I find it vaguely reminiscent of Neil Young’s acoustic epics like “Last Train To Tulsa” or “Ambulance Blues,” two songs that probably shouldn’t work as well as they do either.

If “Strawberry Wine” overcomes its weirdness, than the totally bizarre flamenco blowout “The Sadness” firmly embraces it. Yeah, I said “flamenco.” Heavily syncopated bullfight-ready guitar riffs and everything. Melodramatic emo lyrics that would probably make me want to barf if placed into a slow piano ballad (“The clouds they pass/But they’re moving so fast/Collide and collapse in her arms like a newborn child/I am one reborn!” Narf). But it’s just so ridiculous and overblown that I can’t help but be entertained. Like I said, I’m just glad Ryan is trying something different for once. Or, in the case of “Carolina Rain,” just doing something he’s always done well: writing a great country song.

So that’s half the album. Unfortunately, the other half is comprised of really dull, slow Love Is Hell-style piano ballads that invariably activate my suck gland. Oh well. I guess he ran out of adventurousness tokens.

Still, I’m glad this album exists. Ryan doesn’t surprise me too often, but this one stands as an exception.

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