29 – Ryan Adams


Ryan Adams


Lost Highway Records


So, in 2005 how productive were you?  For me, I finished a year of high school, watched a season of Arrested Development, and well, yeah.  I did not come out with three albums of solid alt-country and indie rock.  And not one of the albums I did not come out with were not produced by renowned producer Ethan Johns.  However, Ryan Adams proved himself one of the most prolific modern musicians, by accomplishing these things. 

Supposedly, the idea behind 29 is that the album was to be allegedly about each year of Adams’ twenties (this is not that hard to believe, as Adams turned 30 in 2005, thus having a pretty good idea of how his twenties went).  Whether or not this concept album ever turned out depends on the listener’s point of view (If this is what Adams’ twenties were like, then, damn). 

The album starts off with the song “29”.  Pretty much whenever anyone ever reviews this song they compare it to the Grateful Dead.  Which it very well could be, but I don’t know much about the Dead (yes, that’s right, I said it), so I refuse to acknowledge any relevance to these claims.  What it definitely is, is a blues-romp confessional.  It’s Adams using the whole 5:48 for immersing himself (rather selfishly) in the song.  Which is actually a good thing.  Whenever Adams tried to popularize his art, it fails miserably in an excruciatingly boring way (most of his last two albums).  So, this opening song completely sets the tone for a depressing, self-indulgent album.

“Strawberry Wine”’s incessant, unhurried strumming takes over from “29”.  Most of the song just involves Adams’ cracking voice singing softly over an acoustic guitar for (wow) eight minutes.  The song won’t hold the audience’s interest every time it’s played, but instead respectably declines to do so.

However, what the second track refuses to do, “Night Birds” willingly accomplishes.  In stark contrast to the previous song, “Night Birds” is a sonic masterpiece.  With haunting piano, a muted whisper of singing, reverbed guitar lines, and simple brush strokes on drums, this third track does hold the attention of the listener.  Even the echoed reverb on Adams’ voice near the end of this track creates a kind of perfection as opposed to a cheesy sound that could’ve become so relevant with a risk like this.

Unfortunately, “Blue Sky Blues” does nothing to develop the album.  It tries to recreate the sound from “Night Birds” but misses its goal completely.

“Carolina Rain”, while not a great track (in fact, it’s still rather skippable.  Kind of like an 8:00 a.m. statistics class that you just don’t feel like waking up for), is okay.  It’s has nice harmony guitar lines, but these give way to an acoustic strum and country-tinged slide.  Adams’ tries to keep a story going with his lyrics, yet the song lacks any personality.

This is the opposite for “Starlite Diner” which is a completely indulgent track.  Which is great.  Adams is at his best when he’s being indulgent and inherently personal.  Again sung in a near-whisper, the piano is the only other relevant instrument.  Whereas other songs end with the narrator left in an apparent depression, here Adams provides some sort of hope as the narrator finally sees the (cough) object of his affections appear (“There you are” he repeats). 

“The Sadness” on the other hand, is nothing but dismal and bleak images, half-yelled in Adams’ cracking voice.  Strangely, all this is over a flamenco, Spanish rhythm (Hell, Adams even parodies this at the end of the song).  Even stranger, it works.  The song is completely out-of-place on the album, being the most uptempo, completely different genre’d song.  And because of this distinctive characteristic, the song paradoxically feels perfect where it is.

Ryan Adams becomes his most indulgent, most absorbed, and most depressing on “Elizabeth, You Were Born to Play that Part”.  With this, it becomes the most interesting song on the album.  By far, this is one of the best songs, sonically, lyrically, and musically that he’s ever written.  The first half revolves around a compassionate vocal on top of a soft piano (“I’m caught in a dream and I can’t get out”).  This gives way to a piano and guitar instrumental outro that lasts for a few minutes.  How many other times has Adams ever done this?  Not many, if at all.  Normally, he loves to let his voice be the focal point, yet here he lets the music express the feeling.  The song is one of the most rousing compositions in his catalogue.

The album should end with that last song, but seeing as there’s nine years from 20-29, one more has to be added (that’s only if you buy into the idea that this is a concept album).  So, “Voices” ends the album.  Overall, it’s a very good song that follows the patter set forward by “Starlite Diner”, “29”, and “Strawberry Wine.”  It definitely fits on the album, but to end with the song, almost makes it feel it was tacked on as an afterthought.  It could easily be switched with “Elizabeth” to create a better listing.

Adams is at his finest when he’s being completely self-indulgent (an idea that he should return to, if he continues making music, as his last two albums (aimed at becoming hits) were just so-so).  When he’s being egotistical and self-absorbed, his music is that much more interesting.  For the most part, this comes across in 29.  While a few songs could’ve been left off the album, his work is definitely interesting, captivating, and to a certain extent, beautiful.  This is one of my favorites of his, and it feels like the sequel to Heartbreaker.  To make it more impressive, this was the third of his albums released in 2005.  Go, be immersed in this record, for when you’re feeling introverted and despondent, this album will be there for you.

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