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Heart(ache) of Gold


Ryan Adams: Gold

Lost Highway, 2001

Rating : 4.0 (3.7 without bonus CD)



Posted: October 11, 2001

By Kevin Forest Moreau

It was clear to anyone who listened to Pneumonia, the posthumous, final release from the now-venerated Whiskeytown, that Ryan Adams -- the group's visionary/firebrand -- was chafing at that band's status as Y'all-ternative's next great white hope. Veering from the ragged polish of Whiskeytown's earlier efforts, Pneumonia showed Adams indulging his whimsical side on songs like "Paper Moon" and "Mirror, Mirror" -- taking as sharp a detour as he could from the expectations of the No Depression crowd. (Of course, by splitting up the group, Adams effectively martyred it, earning it a hallowed spot in alt-country Valhalla -- but at least it happened on his terms.)

It's also obvious, in listening to Gold, Adams' heralded second solo effort (and his first for the boutique label Lost Highway), that somewhere along the way he's made peace with his country-rock muse. Like 2000's raucous, affecting Heartbreaker, Gold finds Adams slam-dancing in Gram Parson's shadow, reconciling his rock and country instincts with a deceptive ease on songs like "New York, New York" and "Firecracker" -- the disc's one-two punch of an opener. On these numbers, he shows a talent for channeling the mystery and history of country and roots-rock's heroes (from Hank Williams to Steve Earle) through the modern prism of such disaffected poets as Paul Westerburg and, yes, even Kurt Cobain (to whom he's been all too often -- and too easily -- compared).

Musically, Gold suffers slightly from Adams' staggeringly prolific nature. As on Pneumonia, he tosses off ideas with a recklessness endemic to his relative youth. In his hurry to move on to the next number, some songs seem undercooked. Surely the meandering "Nobody Girl" (a kiss-off to former paramour Winona Ryder, perhaps?) fades away too early into its 10-minute running time. The best of the material here -- the simmering "Enemy Fire," the lingering heartache of "Harder Now That It's Over" -- gets dragged down by trifles such as "Answering Bell" (a pleasant but empty Van Morrison knockoff) and the whimsically silly "Sylvia Plath", which should have stayed an entry in a drunken journal and never been introduced to the light of day.

Gold's most enduring numbers ("La Cienega Just Smiled," "The Rescue Blues," "Gonna Make You Love Me") make a convincing argument that Adams should slow down and spend a bit more time with his material. Because throughout the disc, Adams shows that his true strength is his brittle heart. As "Somehow, Someday" and "Harder Now" make clear, there's perhaps no songwriter on such intimate and heart-rending terms with lost love this side of Hank Williams. When he wails "You're free/free with a history" in the latter's chorus, the collision of affected, offhand cool and acute desolation lurking beneath his vocal control are enough to drive a brass-knuckled fist square into the solar plexus of anyone who's ever lost a love.

Maybe Adams' self-professed "Easy Heart" is the reason for his quicksilver prolific-ness: If he were to linger any longer over each individual painful memory, perhaps they'd eat him alive, so he skips nimbly from heartbreak to heartbreak just long enough to save them to tape. Certainly, Heartbreaker was a much more cohesive road map of breakup and recovery (so much so, in fact, that yours truly -- currently nursing his own broken heart -- can barely stand to listen to it these days). Which is ironic, given Gold's aspirations as a sort of rambling travelogue chronicling Adams' relocation from New York to Los Angeles. Adams' desire to be a ramblin' man is at odds with his masterful poetry of poignant heartache. When he reconciles the two, he'll live up to the (admittedly deserved) hype currently being heaped upon him, and emerge as one of his genre's masters.

POST-SCRIPT: It should be noted, for the sake of completion, that the five-song bonus disc that accompanies the initial pressings of Gold show the disc that might have been. The rollicking "Rosalie Come and Go" is arguably a more assured rocker even than "New York, New York," evoking the kind of carefree stomp the Stones used to toss off so effortlessly back in the early '70s. And "The Fools We Are as Men" and the compact "Cannonball Days" show how effective Adams really can be when he harnesses a bittersweet memory to an effective, understated arrangement. If only some of Gold's filler had been trimmed to make room for these songs, the disc would rate much, much higher. As is, at its best, it burns bright enough to rank as among one of the year's best efforts.

Shots Of Whiskey
After Pneumonia, those looking for a taste of vintage Whiskeytown should reach for Faithless Street and Stranger's Almanac. Heartbreaker, Adams' solo debut, is a stirring work shot through with palpable pain and longing. Don't put it on when you're nursing a broken heart.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
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 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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