The sleeve notes to Jacksonville City Nights reveal Ryan Adams sporting a rather fine bushy beard. This reflects his welcome return to plaid shirts and cowboy boots, moving further away from the spiky-haired punk of 2003’s baffling album Rock N Roll. In fact, the greasy beard and bedraggled hair allies him with those Godfathers of hairies, The Band – proving his kinship with that ensemble is not exclusively musical.
Before addressing the album in detail, lets just get it out the way that Ryan Adams remains one of the most spectacularly gifted, emotive songwriters there is and holds one of the most consistent bodies of work around right now. The first of his three albums this year, Cold Roses, remains along with Rufus Wainwright‘s Want Two, the best work by anyone so far this last year.
His second sees him revisit his devotion to Gram Parsons more fervently than at any point since he first introduced himself to the world’s eardrums with Whiskeytown‘s Faithless Street back in 1997. Indeed, one song from those sessions pops up here, My Heart Is Broken, a characteristically desperate shuffle co-written with the marvellous Caitlin Cary.
I can’t help thinking Ryan Adams should exist on the fringes of the music scene, as an edgy presence whose genius is heard by a select few and makes the odd curio album in a Nick Cave kind of way. He has it in him, as his work with Jesse Malin in punk outfit The Finger proves. On Jacksonville City Nights however, doing a duet with Norah Jones (Dear John) dashes my dreams for him. Admittedly it is a lovely song, but Jones generally adds little to the album. One pines for the collaborations with Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch on Heartbreaker.
However, there are of course some purely Adams, quite breathtaking country-fused songs on this album. The End resurrects Parsons’s spirit quite beautifully, and Silver Bullets, with its nucleus the tragic line “I can’t make you love me, and you can’t make me stay” will have the most stone-hearted in tears.
His music has always paid a deep homage to his predecessors in American songwriting, and this trend is continued here, even stretching beyond his beloved Parsons. Games, the most affecting track on the album, contains traces of Stephen Stills at his very best while bonus track Jeane evokes the softer side of Neil Young exhibited on the latter’s Comes A Time.
A feature of Adams’s 2005 output is has been that he has finally surrounded himself with a majestic band. Subtle and balanced, the Cardinals, including the renowned J.P Bowerstock on guitar, add an understated finesse to Adams’s often fragile vocals. Even better, they also turn up the twang.
Ever since Rock N Roll, the real Ryan Adams has stood up. However much he may have enjoyed that experiment, the disparity in quality between then and now proves he is no chameleon. True artistry doesn’t come with diversity or the ability to turn one’s hand to a variety to styles. That’s not to say he doesn’t have a style, it being evident that his essence lies in melancholic reflection in balladry. And yes, he operates best when using the palette that is country music. But from these foundations, sometimes it seems like he is telling the whole history of America in a song.
Adams’s artistic peaks are reached through the purity of his songwriting. It is raw melody that makes him a genius, not versatility. He should be no ‘artist on the edge’ after all. He doesn’t need to cross genres, because he transcends them as it is with the innate beauty of those songs. On Jacksonville City Nights, they shine very brightly indeed.