Ryan Adams – III/IV

III/IV (2010)

B-

1. Breakdown Into The Resolve 2. Dear Candy 3. Wasteland 4. Ultraviolet Light 5. Stop Playing With My Heart 6. Lovely And Blue 7. Happy Birthday 8. Kisses Start Wars 9. The Crystal Skull 10. Users 11. No 12. Numbers 13. Gracie 14. Icebreaker 15. Sewers At The Bottom Of The Wishing Well 16. Typecast 17. Star Wars 18. My Favorite Song 19. P.S. 20. Death And Rats 21. Kill The Lights

 

This is another archival release. Originally shelved after its recording in 2006, III/IV is yet another of Ryan’s attempts a lengthy yet fun radio rock record (this time with the Cardinals and their new lead guitarist, Neal Casal, in tow). As such, if you’ve read my reviews of Gold, The Pinkhearts Sessions, and Rock N Roll (though I’m assuming most of you haven’t due to having more interesting things to do, like jerking off or organizing your sock drawers), you can probably predict exactly what I might say about this album. “Generic!” I might cry. “Derivative!” I might sneer. “No riffs!” I might crow. “It’s too long!” I might whine, before adding, “That’s what she said!” And while I feel like the majority of III/IV had a lot more craft, and heart, go into it than, say, Rock N Roll, I can still levy a kinder form of the same criticisms at it. So this time around, I’m gonna do a little bit of bloaviatin’ to try to explain further why I find a large majority of Ryan’s rock material disappointing and annoying.

1) “Generic”/”Derivative.” Even at his very best, Ryan can hardly be accused of being the world’s most unique songwriter. If I were a renowned Russian linguist named George Starostin and was into weighted artist grades, I’d probably give him no higher than a 1 on the ol’ “originality” scale (speaking of George, are we sure he wasn’t hit by the meteor?). Yeah, I love his Heartbreaker-era material as much as anyone, but I can’t honestly say that there is anything—at least not that I’ve picked up on—about his chord sequences, melodies, arrangements, or musicianship that is at all distinguishable from similar music by Nick Drake, Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons, Joni Mitchell, or Neil Young (to select five at random from literally dozens of artists whom Ryan has been audibly influenced by). Now, one could easily argue that he’s just as good or better than many of his forbearers at doing that kind of music (I certainly would), and it’s probably unfair to pick on Ryan for being unoriginal when there are thousands and thousands of bands that are far more unoriginal than he. But the fact remains that the most original thing about Ryan’s music is his voice.

It’s not like this is any more true of his rock material than it is of his acoustic material. I guess he’s a little more obvious about it at times, because when listening to any one of his rock records I invariably glance up and think, “oh, I guess this one is supposed to sound like the Smiths/Radiohead/the Strokes/whoever.” But mostly it’s because when playing loud, he just doesn’t seem to aim as high as he does when playing soft. For instance, my favorite track on III/IV, “Users,” sounds like Ryan finally nailing a type of song he’d been attempting with limited success since, shit, back during the latter days of Whiskeytown. But all that means is that he’s written an entirely successful, pretty MOR, radio friendly guitar pop/rock tune. The stabbing staccato rhythm guitar is cool as shit, as are the matching chopped vocal hooks, and the chorus is solid. But no Big Messages allowed… just “I try so hard to be good… It doesn’t always work out.” It’s as catchy as it is easily disposable. Personally, I think there’s absolutely nothing wrong with aspiring to write such a song, but “Users” the only instance I can think of where Ryan has come up with something truly infectious in this style. Basically, I don’t understand why he would bitch in a 2011 interview about being marketed as “radio rock, fucking Tom Petty” when all of his rock material is radio rock like fucking Tom Petty, but with half the eclecticism and about a tenth of the consistent melodicism.

2) “No riffs.” This sort of goes without saying. If you expect me to listen to a 21-song, 67-minute album, I’m gonna want more than either made-up-in-five seconds chordal stabs, or made-up-in-like-one-sixteenth of a second power chord pounding. I’m not expecting everyone to be Keith Richards or anything, but come on. III/IV is somewhat more rifful, at least by Ryan’s standards; most noticeably on the closing “Kill The Lights,” which starts out with a corny “tough” 80s metal riff and then jams on for about four hours before finally, at the very end, namedropping one of the greatest movies of all time, the 1986 Kurt Russell action-adventure/comedy Big Trouble In Little China. This makes the entire song 100% worth it.

3) “It’s too long.” I almost don’t even want to get into this, because “he’s in need of a good editor” is what EVERY SINGLE CRITIC has said in EVERY SINGLE REVIEW of EVERY SINGLE RYAN ADAMS ALBUM EVER. If you follow Ryan’s music at all, it’s almost as much of a cliché as “it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it” at this point. But here’s the thing about the “album” form: success at compiling a good “album” requires more than just burning a bunch of songs into a slab of plastic. I know I said in a previous review that, in the case of Ryan Adams, part of his appeal for hardcore fans is the sheer quantity of music he is able to make, so it’s probably best to just put it all out there. But “putting it all out there” is what b-side comps, EPs, downloads, and gummy skulls are for. An album should make some sort of coherent statement.

Now, one can easily make such a statement with a double album. Good double albums will wow you with musical diversity and ambitious sprawl. Ryan Adams double albums exist within their own limited stylistic ranges, repeating the same type of song over and over again for no reason. I really don’t, on one album, need more than one song that sounds like the Strokes, more than one song where Ryan imitates Morrissey, more than one song with acoustic rhythm guitar and happy arpeggiated lead guitar that sound exactly alike, or more than one Rock N Roll-style shitfest. For instance.

Overall, as you may surmise from the B- up there, III/IV contains, many more inoffensive compositions than Ryan’s previous rock efforts. Highlights include the sarcastic, twangy power pop of “Stop Kicking My Heart Around” and the irresistibly jaunty “Star Wars” (How could anyone resist a song in which Ryan confesses, “All I want is a girl… who loves me the way I love Star Wars”?). Lowlights include very few songs (really only “No” and “Icebreaker,” which are the “Rock N Roll-style shitfests” I alluded to earlier), but surprises are few (limited mostly to the pretty John Lennon-y cloudbreak bridge in the otherwise pretty sucky fast rocker “Numbers”) and mediocrity is fucking everywhere. The fact that I dislike very little of it and am bored by most of it is cause for celebration is kinda sad, but I’ll take it.



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