Although he is often accused of diluting his own work through his “if its on paper then it must be recorded” approach, Ryan Adams still remains a popular fixture in rock music today. His latest effort, Cardinology is the next step in the 33-year-old North Carolina native’s never ending journey of music exploration, one which has seen Adams dabble in everything from country and alt-rock to Strokes covers and death metal, while picking up a backing band along the way. This time around, the musician so often misunderstood in both his real life and musical words and actions, attempts to finds a sense of purpose, a home, even a family among a life that has been anything but simple. After more than a decade into his acclaimed career, Ryan Adams believes he has finally found all of this in the form of his bandmates, The Cardinals, and uses his latest studio album to reflect this.
In many respects, The Cardinals represent a new beginning for Adams. Since forming the band four years ago, Adams and co. have been working cohesively as a singular unit, distancing themselves from the singers solo material with a style heavy on the band, and less on the individual. The band’s debut, 2005’s Cold Roses, took Adams’ characteristic simplistic alt-country approach and developed it into two discs worth of complex and colorful arrangements. Though billed as a solo album, last year’s Easy Tiger offered much of the same, combining brilliant musicality behind Adams’ equally magnificent narrations. But Cardinology is the first time Adams has actually stepped aside from the forefront. On this release, the band is moreover cohesive and Adam’s role is no greater than any other of his Cardinals bandmates. No longer are these albums sporting a band that’s glorified support for Adams. It’s on this album where the Cardinals can be heard as a band, one band. Missing are the raspy vocals and melodic strumming from Love is Hell. Instead, central vocal harmonies, with more of an emphasis to the rhythm section, and even a soft Bono-like voice from Adams fill their place.
Unfortunately for all that Cardinology offers, it is not without it flaws, especially when its comes to its completion. Despite its often catchy and tight feel, the album is a bit scattered. For example, Fix it and Magick are strong representations of Adams’ musical development with the Cardinals. Laced with excellent rhythm guitars and vocal harmonies these two songs are standouts on this album; however, “Magick”, easily the most up-tempo song on the album, only lasts for just over two minutes. It’s a shame as Adams explores fast paced Nashville blues, only to kill it before the song fully comes alive.
Let Us Down Easy perhaps best reflects a step in Adams’ new direction, but in such a way that it almost overwhelms the brilliant songwriter’s role entirely, ultimately resulting in a song that almost lacks his classic musical presence all together. “Like Yesterday” is not much more than a filler, the type of song you would never have found during the Gold or Love Is Hell days and ones that leaves you asking perhaps Adams’ eye for quality has been a bit blinded by his new found presence of companionship. But then, as if out of nowhere, tracks such as Crossed Out Name, Sink Ship and Natural Ghost Cardinology onces again begins to prove its worth.
However even with this mixbag of content, Adams never looses his most appealing attribute: the emotionally driven songwriting that captured our hearts the first time we heard the skinny, droopy haired frontman of Whiskeytown and has refused to let go since, even despite the decade worth of evolving looks, styles, and sounds. The album’s standout “Cobwebs” encompasses Adams’ beautifully elegant songwriting, as it builds upon all of his many influences, while magnificent knack for storytelling comes front and center most brilliantly on the previously mentioned Crossed Out Name and Sink Ship, where his alt-country flavor is a bit reminiscent of some of music’s greatest poets, namely Johnny Cash.
Ultimately, as much as it can be viewed as new start for Ryan Adams, Cardinology represents almost a crossroads for fans. Longtime diehards might find the the concept of Cardinals featuring Ryan Adams difficult to stomach. What’s more, the album’s 45 minute run time and abundance of two-plus minute tracks might not sit well with those used to the more drawn out figure pieces found on some of his earlier solo work. But at the same time, Cardinology reflects a writer who has found music as brilliant as his words, a musician who has finally found that right band, and a man who has finally found a sense of happiness and purpose. And perhaps in the end, this is Cardinology most pleasing quality. Hey if Ryan Adams can do it, why can’t anyone else?