Welcome back to the Pop Culture Has AIDS Career Coach. We’re essentially good people at heart, and we want to help our fellow man. Specifically, we want to help those actors, musicians, directors, writers and athletes who aren’t performing to their full potential. As lifelong consumers of pop culture and purveyors of exquisite taste, we’re uniquely positioned to advise those artists and entertainers that we believe can do better. Today’s protegé: Ryan Adams.
Ryan Adams is going to be the biggest challenge yet for the PCHA Career Coach. He seems beyond help. If it’s possible for a musician to make a career mistake, he’s made it. Twice. And typically, once musicians start to decline, that’s it for them. There’s no coming back.
But I think Adams is redeemable. I think he can be the rare artist who does suffer for prolonged lows but manages to rebound to create stellar albums once again. Adams can take the Neil Young or Bob Dylan career path.
Before we fix Adams, though, let’s take a look at what’s gone wrong.
Adams burst onto the scene as the young leader of Whiskeytown, a mercurial band that showed huge potential through its fits of inconsistency. Their best, steadiest album was Pneumonia, which was only released after they’d broken up.
As Adams embarked on a solo career, he seemed to find a new maturity, as he released the two best things he’s ever done: Heartbreaker and Gold. Both albums were, and remain, stunning masterpieces — among the best work released by any American artist in the first couple years of the new millennium.
We appeared on the verge of enjoying a major new artist in his prime for years to come. Then the roof caved in.
Adams started bickering with his labels, acting like a jackass in public (including at his own shows), and releasing a series of albums of ever-diminishing value with every-increasing frequency. For a while, his work still contained scattered brilliance. Love is Hell, Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights and even the much-maligned, Strokes-aping Rock N Roll each contain some good songs and a handful of great ones. But Adams had clearly lost his way.
He was trapped in his own head, seemingly unable to channel his immense talent except in fits and starts. He chased every half-formed idea down a rabbit hole and seemed to hold his career, reputation and legacy with no more regard than a discarded cigarette butt. The descent continued until the bad songs outweighed the good and he seemed to release three albums every year.
Critics hailed Adams’ thee albums with The Cardinals as his backing band, beginning with 2007’s Easy Tiger as a mini-comeback of sorts, but Adams was merely dulling his most creative instincts and settling into a comfortable and boring country groove. Those albums are wastes of his ability even more than the likes of Rock N Roll, because he’s playing it completely safe. Obviously, we’d all prefer a masterpiece like Gold every time out, but given the choice between the bland predictability of Adams’ Cardinals output and the wildly uneven but occasionally brilliant work of Love is Hell and Rock N Roll, I’ll take the latter every time.
As a solo artist, Adams began like a prodigy, declined, then settled into a steady rut. Are there comparable arcs? Perhaps Pearl Jam? Perhaps Fountains of Wayne? I’ll admit that’s rare than artist with 17 officially released albums to his credit (not to mention a plethora of shelved albums, singles, EPs, etc.) to realize true change, but that’s what the career coach is for. Huddle up, Adams. Let’s get you fixed.
Action Item #1: Ditch Mandy Moore
I have nothing against Mandy Moore. She’s very pretty and seems like a very nice girl. She’s been decent in a couple movies, I guess? But she’s a bad fit for Ryan Adams both in theory and in practice. Far be it from me to tell someone who to love, but I’m a professional career coach, and my job — nay, my duty — is to help Ryan Adams be the best musician, songwriter and recording artist he can be. So he needs to move on from Moore. She represents exactly the kind of staid life and mentality that has led to the humdrum Cardinals stage of his career. Now Parker Posey? There was a girl who was a good fit for Adams: temperamental, talented and a little bit crazy. They brought out the best and the worst in each other, and Adams needs to tap into his dark side again.
Action Item #2: Forget About the Genre Exercises
More than half of Adams’ album seem like he’s play-acting…trying on other artists’ styles for Halloween. I don’t know if he does it to amuse himself or to prove that he can play a certain style of music better than that style’s practitioners, but it’s maddening. Whiskeytown was an attempt to be alt-country/Americana. Love is Hell was Adams as The Smiths. Rock N Roll was a nod to the “The” bands of that era (Strokes, Hives, Vines, etc.). Orion was an ill-fated attempt at metal. And the Cardinals are a turn back toward country. Heartbreaker and Gold are the only two albums where Adams simply allowed himself to make Ryan Adams albums — no more, no less. Everything else he’s done sounds forced. He needs to just write songs without worrying about how they fit into a certain genre. He’s done that with singles on occasion, at the results have almost always been winning.
Action Item #3: Find Some Consistency In Concert
Adams is notoriously a wild card live, playing intense, lengthy, fully committed shows quickly followed by drugged-out disasters. When he cares, when he wants to be there, he’s a great performer, capable of playing brilliant covers and bringing something extra to his own songs. It’s pretty simple: just give a fuck every time out.
Action Item #4: Seek Out Emmylou Harris
For his next project, Adams should reconnect with Harris for some duets — maybe even an entire album or EP’s worth. Heartbreaker’s “Oh, My Sweet Carolina,” with Harris singing prominent backup vocals, is an all-time great song.
Harris is one of the best duet artists of all time, and her voice serves as perfect accompaniment to Adams’ own honeyed twang. Plus, she lends him instant credibility. Recording new songs with Harris would show the world that Adams is serious about getting back on the right track.
Come on, Ryan. You’re too good to flounder for this long. More “The Bar is a Beautiful Place,” less “Cobwebs” and “29.” By some accounts, your new album, Ashes and Fire, is a return to form. But let’s just say this isn’t the first time we’ve heard those promises.