I don’t really know much about Ryan Adams or his music -- I picked up this, his most recent I believe, used at Cutler’s one day because his name came up in an email from my old friend Tim Gilfillan, who was a touchstone for lots of music I acquired in the ‘80s. Just one of those lucky confluences of a sudden curiosity and the means to satisfy it. Am I satisfied? Not certain.
Easy Tiger (2007) is a kind of “easy listening country” for the most part, with occasional jabs into something a little more rough (“Halloweenhead” -- one of my favorites here: “head full of tricks and treats / places where junkies meet / and it leads me through these streets at night / that’s alright, I just watch, I don’t go inside”). At times there’s a little bit of what I like so much about Paul Westerberg: good grasp of melody, but not too pop, not too hook-driven, and the kind of “I wear my bruised heart on my sleeve” lyrics of the troubadour in dour times, striving to keep his head above the sentimental schmaltz and the ersatz rock posturing that plague so many songwriters. Adams teeters on the verge of both, a little too much at times, at least on this record, which (I believe) arrives as a kind of “cleaned-up act” in the annals of Adams, so that we can almost believe this is country as any good ol’ bad boy might practice it (Willie Nelson comes to mind, in songs like “Tears of Gold” or “Pearls on a String” -- the latter very effective with the banjo, y’know). None of it’s bad, some of it’s a bit forgettable. In fact, my project of walking, verbally, through my CD collection was halted by the fact that this is the second entry, alphabetically, and I don’t even now have that firm a grasp on it.
Two early favorites, “The Sun Also Sets” and “These Girls” have been joined by “I Taught Myself How to Grow Old” as a triumvirate of songs with enough guts to get at a certain malaise that overtakes all those who age in the service of the muses: “there it is, we are only one push from the nest / there it is, we are only one moment from death”; “but when they smile how can anyone feel bad / I get tired and I wanna go to bed / these girls are better off in my head”; “I taught myself how to grow / ‘til I was crooked on the outside, insides caved.” This is all offered with bright arrangements -- maybe at times too bright -- and a voice that is much prettier than Westerberg’s, able to hit a higher register that Adams seems to like as a means of approaching a touch of soul. And I think it’s that “white soul” infusion into the country stylings that makes this one a little hard to read, aurally, for me. And it’s in those layered background voices at times too: like this is meant to be on some radio in some coffeehouse where people who weathered various storms of becoming now softly graze together in the gathering twilight and feel vindicated because these tunes recall, enough somehow, some earlier glory of country-pop like, who knows, Glen Campbell -- honestly, sometimes “Galveston” isn’t far from the mix here. And that is maybe both charming and disheartening -- which I think is what “These Girls” is saying anyway...
And I toy with you
And you toy with me
Can you stop this please?
–Ryan Adams, “These Girls”