Ryan Adams and The Cardinals

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Hot off the heels of Easy Tiger, Ryan Adams' second legitimate, albeit questionable stab at mainstream reverence, comes the further perplexing follow-up EP Follow the Lights. If it weren't for the fact that the guy can basically write a sanctified country ballad in his sleep, wake up, not comb his hair, and then drop an absolute gem of spastic rock, no one would even bat an eye at his new sound, direction, girlfriend, etc. But the dichotomy of his genius—superlative songwriting compounded by effortless disappointments—has left fans and critics alike mystified throughout his entire career, and this continual unpredictability is why the fans love him and the critics love to hate him. As a result, Adams has been relegated to music's eternal whipping boy, an apathetic prodigy with the inability to suffice the only critic of true relevance—himself. The EP opens with the title track "Follow The Lights," the first of two new songs and this one is nothing more than a sentimental lullaby that goes nowhere fast. Next up is the second new track, "My Love For You Is Real," a definite improvement, but excruciatingly tame. Both songs reek of Easy Tiger throwaways and can leave you with three different feelings: bored, lost or both. At this point, I was ready to give up on this album but then quickly learned that both of these tracks are slated to be featured in ABC's new drama October Road. Ahhhh, everything makes sense now, we all have bills to pay!

Ok, now with the formalities finally out of the way, Adams begins to hit his stride, or rather, his calculated stumble. He really lets it fly on "Blue Hotel," a song originally released on Willie Nelson's Songbird in which Adams himself wrote and produced. Adams truly sings it like he means it, especially on the line "I give up," as the Cardinals provide the perfect blend of country melancholy for the wails to hit you right where it hurts. And then comes the surprise jewel of the album, Adams’ chilling cover of "Down In A Hole," a long-forgotten Alice in Chains classic. No one can sing an Alice in Chains' song like Layne Staley but Adams comes pretty fucking close. I've never heard a cover sung with such sincerity and it makes you wonder what part of the darkness Adams is empathizing with on this one. Keep the nightlight on when this hits the rotation. Heavy.

For the final three tracks of the album, Adams dips into his back catalogue to revisit a few select tracks. He strips each selection of their original sound and molds them into his current form and style, and the result is a new respect for the strength of his songwriting and another perspective on his artistry as a whole. Yahtzee!

Adams exists in a constant state of flux fueled by audacity, doubt, disregard and fear. The result is a discography so chaotic and scattered his next move is about as predictable as a bolt of lightning. It used to be fun, watching his career simultaneously develop and collapse with each new release as he routinely blindsided us with something so fresh and bizarre it left us simply dumbstruck. It's well apparent Adams utilizes music as a tool for his own self-discovery and with the recent release of Easy Tiger, Adams seems to have finally discovered his true artistic self and now our favorite high-flying scatterbrain can consider himself officially "grounded." Unfortunately his music has taken root as well, and the result is Follow the Lights, a mixed bag consisting of a few lackluster new songs, a scalding Alice In Chains cover, and a handful of quality Cardinal reinterpretations. As usual, the dichotomy lives on, but the unpredictability has begun to fade. Overall, this album isn't anything amazing and I doubt it was intended to be, but it does make a nice companion to a pack of Marlboro Reds and a rocking chair.

Follow the Lights is out October 23 on Lost Highway.

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