Just a Singer in a Rock n Roll Band: Ryan Adams and the Cardinals: Cardinology (Lost Highway)
With a year of sobriety behind him, Ryan Adams recently released his tenth full-length solo album, Cardinology. Featuring his backing band the Cardinals, the disc once again displays Adams’s easy command of a broad range of musical styles, from alt-country to rock ’n’ roll to acoustic singer-songwriter tunes.
Though not all of Adams’s past albums have been gems, he has more than proven his abilities as a strong songwriter and musician across many genres. His 2001 debut, Heartbreaker, has both a distinct alt-country and classic rock feel, with connections to such artists as Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, and the Allman Brothers, as well as contemporaries like Wilco. Gold, released later the same year, showed a more mainstream, adult pop-rock side of Adams’ music. Among his following releases were the soft, ballad-laden Love is Hell, the alt-country, Cardinalified Jacksonville City Nights, and the appropriately titled Rock ’n’ Roll.
On Cardinology, however, Adams does not commit himself to one particular genre, but explores several. “We Were Born into a Light,” “Evergreen,” and “Let Us Down Easy” feature his familiar pedal steel–infused, alt-country sound, but also a spiritual, almost hymnal feel, thanks to the arrangement of the vocal harmonies. Lyrically, religious themes pop up throughout the record—an indication of how Adams may have learned to cope with his past addictions.
The dark themes that are typically present in Adams’s albums crop up on Cardinology in songs like “Crossed Out Name” and “Like Yesterday.” On the former, he sings: “Orange sky don’t go / Manhattan looks like someplace else / Cloudy with a low fog shelf / Into the crowded streets I go / Eventually they lead me back home where we used to live / I live alone / And into bed I go.” “Cobwebs,” in contrast, is a graceful, building song in which Adams’s powerful singing is reminiscent of Bono, and the guitar like something the Edge might have played on All that You Can’t Leave Behind. “Evergreen” is a comforting song that features harmonizing vocals and a fluid, easygoing beat.
Like Easy Tiger’s “Halloweenhead,” “Magick” is clearly the rock ’n’ roll tune on the album. Though not staggeringly original or poetic, the song is light and fun and will have you singing along to the chorus: “So turn the radio on / So turn the radio up / So turn the radio up loud and get down!”
The last and arguably best song on Cardinology is the ballad “Stop,” which expresses Adams’s experience overcoming alcoholism and drug addiction. The song consists of only Adams’s voice, piano, and string accompaniment, the simple arrangement evoking a vulnerable mood that complements the lyrics well. The song opens with the lines, “I know a sickness so ancient and cross / No crucifix could ever fix enough / In the basement of a church these people, they talk / There is a line that must be walked / If you wanna make it stop, then stop.” The feeling of humility in the song seems to stem not only from Adams’s journey into sobriety, but also from his ego-free relationship with the Cardinals (Neal Casal on acoustic guitar and piano, Chris Feinstein on bass, Jon Graboff on pedal steel guitar, and Brad Pemberton on drums). Adams describes his relationship with the other band members as a collaborative effort where everyone is equal and there is absolutely no dead weight. In a recent interview, he stated, “I’m [just] the singer in the Cardinals, no matter what it says on the marquee, or anything that’s going on now. That’s how I view my world, and that’s where I’m going with myself spiritually.”
Hearing this might be surprising to some, especially those who have seen him play live, as he often comes across as self-centered, temperamental, and rude. (He isn’t exactly known for his audience interaction.) But maybe Adams is trying something new. Maybe, with the clarity and focus granted to him through his sobriety, he is becoming more patient and less manic. Maybe he’s realizing how important his friends are in his recovery. The title of the album certainly acknowledges the importance of his band; in “Evergreen” he sings (presumably to his bandmates): “And maybe you’ll find someone to lay some roots down next to you.”
On Cardinology, Adams shows once again how versatile a singer he can be. On “Natural Ghost” and “Go Easy,” his voice strains and trembles with emotion. Yet in “Magick” he belts out the lyrics rock ’n’ roll style, with no trace of weakness.
What Adams offers on Cardinology may not be terribly groundbreaking or in-your-face, but it is warm and comforting. As an easy-to-listen-to record, it sounds like a more focused, well-crafted version of Easy Tiger. Well-written both musically and lyrically, the album contains absolutely no duds. On earlier Adams albums I might have recommended downloading only a few tracks, but this one is definitely worth purchasing as a whole.
JULIE KOCSIS is a Manhattan-based music critic. She is the associate editor and a music writer at ShortAndSweetNYC.com.