I don’t buy that many CD’s these days; I’ve even put off buying Derek Webb’s latest album. But when Ryan Adams hits the stores so do I. I had heard a fair bit of acclaim for his latest effort, Easy Tiger, both from friends and critics – but I was still strangely unprepared for what it was. Adams’ music isn’t full of Kanye West-like narcissism; it’s a much greater and sadder hubris than that. The man knows he’s talented, knows he has more inspiration in a day than last years’ top 100 songs, and knows he can play guitar and piano fluently in every contemporary style. He’s a musical juggernaut; not bound by skill or necessity, just his own discipline and desire.
And that’s why Easy Tiger isn’t a great album. It could be a classic, much like Heartbreaker or Cold Roses; or it could be a themed miracle like 29 or Love is Hell. But the lack of challenge is making Ryan sloppy: gone is the raw punk sarcasm of Rock N’ Roll. As much as I’ll listen to Easy Tiger 10 times to every time Rock N’ Roll spins for me, I like the Rockin’ Ryan better.
Thematically the singular song on this album is the opening track “Goodnight Rose,” which follows in the strange Neil Young-esque country vein of Jacksonville City Nights. It serves as the setup song; and if it sounds less sincere, it’s because Ryan is too self-aware of the naivety of the first person in the song. The sloppiness serves here though (“we could win the whole shabang…”) as he listlessly enters into another night in another’s arms. The song sets the table well for the rest of the album, but it’s un-enthusiasm is a little discordant with the intensity of the hope and rapture Ryan consistently mourns throughout the album of songs like “The Sun Also Sets”, “Everybody Knows”, “Two”, “Rip Off”, and especially “These Girls.” The album would have been better off switching “Goodnight Rose” and the final track “I Taught Myself How to Grow Old”.
But don’t get me wrong. Ryan is still writing, and so you know the songs are good. He frequently wrongs songs on the spot, and I would buy almost every single one of them. Some of his stuff though, could use some maturing; or maybe a dash of discipline. Ryan’s producer on this album is Jamie Candilorno, who is well known for, well nothing. The album is diverse and interesting, but several decision turn out to be reckless and ill advised.
So what is this album about? Typical Ryan Adams themes: the sudden hopeful future in the eyes of a girl, trying to find home in the midst of a city night, and the gritty, staticy self-awareness of his own strung out coping. At times he’s stylistically settled (“Oh My God, Whatever, etc”), but the entire album seems a little stylistically forced. Even in what’s probably my favorite song on the album (“Two”) there’s some uncharacteristically trite and discordant lines (“…and I’m fractured from the fall…”) right before the most resonating lines on the album (“…and I wanna go home, but it takes two when it used to take one”).
No longer dealing with death, and no longer under the full heat of love’s intense vision, Ryan has to be more skilled to become great. Passionate exhaustion will not lead to deeper sincerity or musical craft. I’ve always enjoyed Ryan’s ability to risk, like refusing to repeat some of tender and haunting moments in “Blue Sky Blue” or “Elizabeth, You Were Born To Play the Part” by writing chorus-less songs. I’ve always admired his confidence in himself, a confidence that makes one feel that “…forever only takes it’s toll on some…” into the most believable and profound statement one could ever make. It isn’t, but his sincerity awakes my soul and sets my mind on fire. Easy Tiger is primarily a product of confidence without sincerity.
I can’t seem to shake the feeling that to some extent girls and songs, Ryan’s two greatest loves, have horrifyingly morphed into one faceless succubus. “Pearls on a string” seems to be hinting to that fearful awareness. “Tomorrow’s on it’s way, there’s always new songs to sing, glorious kind and always on time pearls on a string.” Ryan is addicted, he has a sad need-love to girls and songs, and what he needs is to love the song and a particular woman. This tragic addiction is strangely contrasted with his addiction song (“Halloweenhead”) a rather enjoyable and funny, though dark, song. Ryan’s self-awareness can look at his stupid self and enjoyably and profanely mock his addicted farce.
Ryan is clean now, at least from drugs and alcohol, but who will save his soul? Songs have become just another bus stop that isn’t headed towards the home that he so barely dares now to hope for, and girls have become soulless means of self-medication. The crowning song on the album is “Oh My God, Whatever, etc.”, a harsh look at the foolish moment of love’s ecstasy. The sun comes up only to go down again when two strangers are making love in a cheap hotel. “Strange lovers moan each others names on by-hour sheets for the very first time/One of them is James/The other’s some name she changes every time she lies across his bed.” The mechanics of the song are near impeccable, making it the best rendition of the album’s harsh hindsight of love’s sweet promises, the a despairing cycle of first loves.
The problem with prodigies is natural talent tends to corrupt itself as sloth infects. When Ryan has to work harder for the song, or for the love of the woman – he might find himself face to face with the invaluable. He might find himself surprised at escape of the cycle by the value of the eternally valuable. Ryan Adams is the best natural singer/ songwriter in this generation, but he won’t find joy or greatness till he is free from the fear that everything he touches is Gold.