If you were to count Demolition and the two, separate Love is Hell discs, then Jacksonville City Nights is actually Ryan Adams’ eighth release. In fact, it’s his eighth release in six years. And if you take into account that 2004 was spent recuperating from a broken hand, that’s really only five years. Of course, there was the posthumous Whiskeytown album Pneumonia that was released shortly before Gold, so that makes nine if you want to argue. But the quantity/quality argument isn’t going to start right now, especially not from me. For most artists (and most would say Adams is included in this grouping), very little good can come from more than one album a year. Usually, I’d say that’s correct. I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning was good. Digital Ash in a Digital Urn wasn’t, so much. Speakerboxx and The Love Below were both sorta half good. And remember Nelly’s Sweat and Suit? They both sucked pretty equally. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, Ryan Adams’ unabridged three-album year of 2005 is looking pretty impressive.
Back in May, Cold Roses found Adams returning to country music as a source of inspiration, even though it wasn’t so much a “country” album (and I still don’t hear the Dead, but whatever). His latest, and second with The Cardinals, Jacksonville City Nights, is a country album: tears in beers, cheatin’ hearts and honky tonk angels. There’s nothing “alt” about this, though there’s nothing here that’s bound for CMT either. It’s refreshing to hear some honest-to-goodness American country music, especially when the Wal-Mart sponsored superstars of the genre seem to have forgotten what country really is. Just because you wear a hat, doesn’t make you a country singer, my friend.
Well, Adams doesn’t wear a hat (he hides under his shaggy mop), but he knows his way around some genuine C&W. But it’s a much more traditional, old school form on Jacksonville than it was on Cold Roses or Heartbreaker. This is the country music of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, of Marty Robbins and The Carter Family. But it’s also a little more crisp, as recording quality has improved drastically in the last 50 years.
The chorus of “A Kiss Before I Go” seems to put things in perspective: “can’t tell the truth in a house of lies/can’t explain what I don’t know/one shot, one beer and a kiss before I go.” Now that’s country. So is the honky tonk piano and lap steel that accompany Adams’ heartbroken tale. “The End,” curiously placed as the second track, is a lovely waltz, which finds Adams “suffocating on the pines in Jacksonville.” “Dear John” is something of a lackluster duet between Adams and Norah Jones, thereby making it an instant favorite for the adult contemporary crowd, but it’s a rarity on this wonderful collection. Still, there are much stronger ballads, like the stark “Silver Bullets” and the spare “September,” which almost lent the album its name before a last minute change.
The album’s brightest spots are on the songs where The Cardinals let loose and tear it up. “The Hardest Part,” for instance, is an upbeat folk tune that sounds more like the material on Cold Roses than a George Jones and Tammy Wynette duet. “Peaceful Valley” isn’t as immediately jaunty, but gets up and goes with a mosey rather than a gallop. “My Heart is Broken” is nigh countrypolitan gold, tuneful, sad, but just catchy and bouncy enough to make you smile all the same. And “Trains” slips in some outlaw country rowdiness, chugging along like the Santa Fe.
Adams, strangely, has strengthened his output by releasing more material. I’m not sure how that’s possible, but the man’s on a roll. He’s still got one more to go before year’s end, and we’ll see how that one turns out. In the meantime, 2005 finds Adams with at least three discs worth of great songs. Conor Oberst could learn a thing or two.
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.