All art is created within a larger social/cultural/political context, and when an artist makes a personal statement with their art or music, it will also to one degree or another say something about that person’s inner life, thoughts, and may reflect on their relationships, their experience in relation to the larger context. All of that plays a role in any critical evaluation of a piece of music or art. While there are always objective values to keep in mind, but only a fool would claim that one’s subjective response to what is known, seen and heard plays has no impact on any discussion of a new work, album, or collection. All of which is to say that there’s no way to talk about the new music of Ryan Adams, without considering the impact of those accusations of abuse and misconduct that have side-lined his career since first appearing in the NYTimes in February of 2019.
Fresh from the announcement about a trio of new releases, Adams had tours cancelled, lost record contracts and distribution deals, and became person non-grata to many who had once worked with him or called him friend. Wednesdays finally surfaced late in 2020, along with a published apology of sorts, in time followed by Big Colors in ’21, and Chris earlier this year. A lengthy expose appeared in Los Angeles Magazine in the Aug. 9, 2021 issue, with the aptly titled “I Felt Like They Were Asking Me to Die,” then in May of this year, Adams played a sold out concert at NYC’s famed Carnegie Hall, which led to a feature in Variety titled “Can Ryan Adams Be a Rock Star Again? With a New Team and Return to Concerts, Singer Looks to Move Past Sexual Misconduct Allegations”.
Limited now to his own indie label, Chris has yet to arrive in any physical format, but now able to release his music digitally at his own pace, Adams has continued to be prolific. In early summer, he released another double-length collection, Romeo & Juliet, an artful turn exhibiting more of Adam’s tender acoustic side which has been sitting on a back burner waiting for a review, when this new 10-track collection, FM came across as a download, Adams’ 21st studio album, and third release in just this year, but it’s only August so who knows?
While Romeo & Juliet feels like the stronger release, potentially more personal in spirit although again with no actual revelations, but FM finds Adams exhibiting his solid classic rock songwriting chops. “I Want You” is a power pop rocker, with traditional moon and swoon lyrics: “In a world so cold and so wrong/Give us faith and a place to belong/When the sky turns cold and gray/Give us strength to carry on one more day.” “Love Me Don’t” has a faster power pop/punk feel, “Fantasy File” feels like late 70’s pop/rock, with a sax playing paint by colors melodies. You get the feeling Adams could crank these kinds of formula rockers in his sleep.
“When She Smiles” is the kind of jangly rock that dials in as something closer to what we might want to hear more of from Adams, even if the lyrics are more “Strawberry cotton curls,” which inevitably has to rhyme with girl. With a title like “Hall of Shame” you might begin to hope of something resembling a personal disclosure, but the slow rocker settles for an anonymous “We are lost,” but the piano playing is engaging. “Wild and Hopeless” finds the recently sober Adams in the “candy aisle,” driven wild by the colorful wrappers… but there’s little depth that the talented craftsman is willing to plumb on this collection. The set closes with a fun stomping “Do You Feel,” with a fun power drill guitar solo, with bright, resounding guitar chords defining “Someday,” letting the chorus put a warm face on a situation that feels like a “kick in the nuts with the house on fire.” At first he sings, “But we smile,” but in the last time through it gets real: “We lie… we lie and say we’re fine/And someday, it’ll all wash away.” There’s little doubt here that Adams is hoping for that day.
“When She Smiles” / “Do You Feel” / “Someday”
ARTISTS WITH SIMILAR FIRE
Tom Petty / John Mellencamp / Todd Snider