By the time you read this, you will have likely read that Cardinology is both the best and worst album Ryan Adams has released in a while. Quite frankly, that’s how every Ryan Adams review reads. Since day one, Adams has been able to seduce and repel music critics in a way that few artists have ever been able to in such a bipolar fashion, though, truthfully, most of the time, he keeps a pretty even keel. He’s had his peaks (Cold Roses) and his valleys (29), but the quality of Adams’ work is frequently overshadowed by the perception of him, which is alternately fawning and hostile.
To set the record straight, Cardinology is a good album. It doesn’t achieve the emotional heights of Heartbreaker or the melodic brilliance of Cold Roses, but it’s solid, classic Ryan, much like last year’s Easy Tiger, yet with a greater tendency toward classic rock. Opener “Born Into a Light” struts into a stunning country-rock track, weeping with mesmerizing lap steel riffs and cleanly plucked acoustic guitars. “Go Easy” erupts with arena rock bombast, while “Fix It” swaggers a la The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls, sexily strutting with late night grooves and soulful tones. Were Adams to pursue an entire album’s worth of bluesy jams like this, he might be on to something spectacular.
“Magick” reveals the album’s first true misstep. A crunchy, badass rock song, it begins strong, until Adams unleashes some of his dumbest lyrics to date: “you’re like a rain cloud/ if it rained mushroom clouds.” It’s forgivable, much in the same way that 2007’s “Halloweenhead” was, but it’s hard not to wonder why he didn’t save these for Rock N Roll 2 rather than clutter a perfectly good Americana set. “Cobwebs” has a solid riff, though it fails to achieve the great build-up that it promises. It remains a decent enough song, though is outshined by “Let Us Down Easy,” a song closer to his country roots, and one performed with a great deal more heart and soul. “Natural Ghost” is another standout, a classic, trademark Adams country rocker with ethereal touches. Likewise, “Sink Ships” offers some melodic delights, though the job application lyrics do detract from its strong points.
Cardinology is neither Adams’ best, nor his worst album. Those who have grown to love Adams’ scruffy C&W-laced pop will no doubt find a wealth of sonic delights here. Yet, clearly, some bad habits die hard, as evident by the schlock of “Magick.” Even at his goofiest, however, Ryan Adams proves to be a fun listen. And every couple years or so, when he and his outstanding band The Cardinals (major belated props) hit their groove, they can also prove to be a powerful one as well.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.