For the last few years, Ryan Adams’ reputation had become the stuff of legend. Erratic stage behavior, a penchant for releasing too much material and a few songs that probably should have never made it to the public’s ears left many with the impression that he might have been on the downslide since his days in Whiskeytown and his debut, Heartbreaker. That’s mostly a matter of opinion, I suppose, but even amidst some of 2003’s over-abundance of new Adams material there were two damn good albums’ worth of material released (there were three total, you do the math). Yet, during his last tour, a resurfacing after spending half a year healing a bum wrist, Adams was earnest, humble and gracious, playing almost nothing from RockNRoll and debuting new songs that sounded more like his Heartbreaker period heartbreakers or Whiskeytown classics than his recent foray into party rock. So to hear Adams go back to his roots on Cold Roses is not so much a surprise, but rather a confirmation that he had it in him all along.
Though few care to admit or believe that RockNRoll was, in fact, a really good album (and it was…at least in parts), it’s no stretch to say that Cold Roses is Adams’ best material in years. Sounding more like the alt-country of Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac than his later big-haired rockers, Cold Roses is a homecoming for Adams, teaming up with new backing band The Cardinals for a two-disc set of rootsy, heartfelt country rock that boasts more than a handful of standouts.
Logistically speaking, Cold Roses didn’t have to be two discs, however. At around 75 minutes, all of the songs could have easily fit onto one disc. But if we’ve learned anything from Gold and the original sequencing of Love is Hell, it’s that an album can, in fact, be too long. Instead, we have been given Adams’ songs in more digestible forms, which, knowing his penchant for overdoing it, is a blessing.
Adams finds himself as a soulful, spiritual singer in opener “Magnolia Mountain,” a six-minute song that feels much shorter than it actually is. The Cardinals provide a hearty, majestic backing to Adams’ subdued lead, offering a heartfelt and folksy lyric:
“I want to be the bluebird singing
Singing to the roses in the yard
The roses in the yard her father grew for her
But it’s been raining that Tennessee honey so long
I got too heavy to fly
But ain’t no bluebird ever get too heavy to sing”
“Sweet Illusions” offers the first instance of great singles material, an upbeat and melancholy folk-rock song with some great falsetto on Adams’ part. Much of this first disc is slower, as in tracks like the hushed “Meadowlake Street” and “When Will You Come Back Home,” though this quieter side is offset by the noisy rockabilly number “Beautiful Sorta,” a distorted barn-burner with a lonesome sadness that only comes with genuine country music. And “Cherry Lane” (perhaps just down the road from “Meadowlake Street”) combines a Johnny Marr-like intro with Adams delivering honky-tonk voice cracks and the occasional minor detail that you can’t help but smile at, like the sound of glass breaking when Adams sings “the glass it hits the floor.”
The second disc on Cold Roses is shorter on ballads than the first side, making room for more of Adams’ faster tunes and country-rockers. Lap steel colors the shuffling, Southwestern tones of “Easy Plateau,” a gorgeous, reverb-laden standout. The first single (though an under-publicized one) “Let it Ride” settles into more of a Southwestern vibe, as J.P. Bowerstock’s haunting guitar leads float over Adams’ acoustic rhythm guitar. Nonetheless, it’s impossible not to be reminded of Whiskeytown highlights like “Turn Around” or “Crazy About You” when listening to this song. The title track is big on big riffs, while guest vocalist Rachel Yamagata offers some feminine ambience to the track.
Unlike the affected grittiness on RockNRoll, Adams’ voice carries more honesty and conviction on this set, as heard in more emotional rockers like “If I Am A Stranger” and “Dance All Night.” And even coming from a deeper, occasionally more melancholy place, Cold Roses sounds more comfortable and joyous than his previous couple releases. There may not have been any myth of record label rejection or artistic integrity at stake on this release, but with a freer, less abrasive approach comes a more enjoyable record this time around.
I would hesitate to say that Ryan Adams has any bad albums, regardless of less forgiving ears and pens. Yet, on Cold Roses, Adams has outdone himself, putting forth more than a handful of great tunes. It still may seem like a bit much to some, and to be fair, at 14 songs it could have been just as good. But Ryan wanted us to hear all of these songs, and he should be commended for his generosity. When the songs are this good, I’ll take everything he’s got.
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.