The latest in his current quest to prove himself the most prolific songwriter of all time, 29 is the final part of this year’s trilogy which started with May’s Cold Roses and continued with September’s Jacksonville City Nights. For 29, he’s dumped The Cardinals and returned to the lovelorn solo troubadour that we know and love from the Heartbreaker and Love Is Hell days.
Adams’ 2005 output has been typically variable. Cold Roses was sublime at times, yet became too sprawling and overlong. Jacksonville City Nights meanwhile, laid on the honky tonk country elements a bit too heavily for this reviewer. Yet 29 is the best of the three – full of sparse, fragile, personal songs, it’s also his best work since Heartbreaker.
Unlike Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights, 29 is marked by its brevity. At just 9 tracks and 48 minutes, it would appear that Adams has at last learned the benefits of quality control. Each track is meant to represent a year in his twenties – and by the sound of the lyrics collected here, they were a troubled time for Adams.
The album’s title track tells the autobiographical tale of a wild kid from Carolina getting into trouble in New York City – “I should’ve died a hundred thousand times, teetering stoned off the side of buildings” Adams sings. It’s set to a pulsating, thrilling bluesy riff and is the most upbeat number of the album. It’s a good, if atypical, prelude to the rest of the album.
From here, it gets very sombre, and those who were entranced by the fragile compositions of Heartbreaker will find much to love. The sparse Blue Sky Blues is a gorgeous piano ballad, while the laid back stroll of Carolina Rain is the closest the album comes to resurrecting the country rock of its two predecessors. Best of all perhaps is the eight minute long Strawberry Wine, an epic reminiscent of Neil Young at his most powerful.
Long term Adams admirers will welcome the return of Ethan Johns here, who last worked with Adams on Gold. He treats these complex songs with a real lightness of touch, meaning that the sometimes death-obsessed lyrical content never becomes too bleak. Whether its Johns that’s installed a much needed sense of discipline into Adams is unknown – but his presence here is very welcome.
With only the over the top Spaghetti Western stylings of The Sadness sounding out of place, 29 is generally Adams’ most consistent album to date. Elizabeth You Were Born To Play That Part lives up to it’s wonderful title, being a heart-tugging ballad about a friend’s miscarriage (“I’m waiting for someone who just won’t show, and every night it feels like there’s no tomorrow, not that you will ever know”). It’s a beautiful song, and it’s Adams at his considerable best.
A few years ago, Ryan Adams seemed poised to snatch the ‘best songwriter of his generation’ award and claim it as his own. For whatever reason that’s never quite happened, but 29 is proof positive that, when he puts his mind to it, he can still come up with the goods. If this is Adams’ kiss-off to his twenties, then the signs are that his thirties will be just as productive and enjoyable.