As a teenager living in Jacksonville, North Carolina, Ryan Adams played in punk bands. Fifteen years later, the artist Rolling Stone Magazine once called “permanently wasted” did the most punk rock thing he could: defied his own conventions and got sober.
His latest offering, Easy Tiger, is surprising in its own way. On this record, Adams distilled his songwriting, separating his tendency for overt self-indulgence and deprecation from his careful introspection and contagious optimism. The result is a balanced, measured album as pure and potent as Onslow County moonshine.
Although it’s Adams’ name and picture that appears on the album cover, much of the record’s success should be attributed to his band, The Cardinals. Many of the songs are ensemble pieces and their arrangements depend and demand a full crew.
The rockers like “Goodnight Rose” and “Halloweenhead” benefit especially from this format. They require a sturdy backbeat and layered guitar work to generate the momentum that explodes into the chorus. The Cardinals took the onus off Adams to carry the album with his songwriting alone, and he responded by writing better songs.
The traditional paradigm of a Ryan Adam’s song finds the singer riding a bar stool trying to triangulate his existential position using the location of a recently exhausted relationship and the distance from his relinquished expectations as points of reference. It’s heady, self-centered math and listening usually requires a dimly lit room and a reasonably clean glass.
Easy Tiger is different as a matter of perspective and maturity. While Adams still can’t resist putting himself at the center of the drama, he is capable now of empathy. On “Two,” the album’s lead single and a duet with Sheryl Crow, Adam’s sings, “If you take me back, back to your place, I’ll try not to bother you, I promise.”
The woman he is with probably doesn’t believe him, and she shouldn’t. Adam’s is broken, incomplete, and if the woman wants something more, she’ll have to find another man. But the remorse Adams feels is only partly for himself because the song is an apology.
With 10 previous albums, Adams is an established artist, but that doesn’t mean he has nothing to prove. Occasionally, he allows his impressive proliferation to get the best of him, and many of his albums are spotty as a result. Easy Tiger is impressive for its consistently solid songs alone. Adams compiled the song list from dozens of tracks; some, like the pensive “Off Broadway,” are six years old. That kind of discipline closes the seams between songs and alludes, again, to newly won maturity.
But the album is not all about validation as an artist. Comfortable inside the confines of a band, away from the pressure of being a songwriter, and sober, Adams seems more relaxed. He still chases his demons in their dark homes but less urgently. That’s good news for his audience and makes this album compulsively listenable and effortless. MTW