Ryan Adams & The Cardinals

Lost Highway, 2008

REVIEW BY: Ludwik Wodka


Ryan Adams’ otherwise well-deserved reputation as one of the best songwriters of his generation has been dogged with accusations of cleaving too close to the sound of the bands that inspired him. With a winning string of albums from the middle 2000s that included Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights, and Easy Tiger with his band the Cardinals, he had plenty of momentum and swagger heading into Cardinology in 2008.

The first thing that struck me about this album was not about what it had, but what was missing. The coherence and the stylistic tinges that color all great albums (even Adams’ own) was missing. This is not to say that Adams could not write great songs- far from it- but that final task of having all of the songs work together as a whole seemed unfinished. This, of course, raises the question of the relevancy of the album in the era of Spotify, YouTube, and iTunes. For an artist like Ryan Adams, though, he would have been keenly aware of an album’s value, of its power to transform a collection of songs into an artistic statement. Why he neglected that here is mystifying. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

One of the key functions of an album for Adams’ broad artistic range is to give his work focus. Jacksonville City Nights, for instance, succeeds through its ballads and classic country flavor. Cardinology begins with “Born Into A Light,” picking up exactly where Easy Tiger left off with the distinctive country-rock sound that had by now become the signature of the Cardinals. On this release, though, things like the odd time signatures in “Go Easy,” the hard rock riffing on “Magick,” or the reverb and arpeggios on “Cobwebs” seem to fall a bit flat.

In spite of these slight complaints, there are some outstanding songs here as well. “Natural Ghost” is one of Adams’ best, with a beautiful soaring chorus. He took on a chance on this song, changing up his style a bit, and it paid off. “Stop” showcases his more delicate side with solo piano and plaintive singing, while “Born Into A Light” is the Cardinals at their country-rock best.

But it is the soft spots on the album that diminish the impact of the album as a whole. This release came across as Ryan Adams and his band seeking to take some artistic chances and experiment a little bit.  This is not to say that this is a bad album, but that it had the unenviable task of living up to the expectations that had been set by nearly a decade of terrific work. In this light, even a slight slip feels precipitous by comparison. Instead of carefully crafting this album into a statement, Adams here delivers only a collection of songs.

Rating: B-

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