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Pro N Con: 

Wrestling with Ryan Adams

Pity poor Ryan Adams. He likes dating famous people only slightly less than Winona Ryder. He can get into (and perhaps owns a share of) just about any New York City club he damn well pleases. He drinks -- often -- with pals like Julian Casablancas of The Strokes.

Sure, part of Adams' persona seems cultured, if not premeditated. He lets everyone know, every chance he gets, that he burns with the flame of a Rimbaud or Verlaine, and will sing his songs to the stars if there's not an audience around or a girl to woo.

That last part? It's the reason Ryan Adams, in the grand musical scheme of things, ultimately "matters." It's why Adams' latest, lloR N kcoR -- a mere two weeks' worth of work -- is not only a good album, but will probably be seen as one of the better discs of the year. "I want as many pieces of art to get out to as many people as will have them," Adams said recently. "It's not about how many people. It's about how many songs."

Some folks would argue -- and with some merit -- that Adams is too prolific for his own good, and would do better to polish 10 or so nuggets a year instead of releasing thirty or more. In addition to the new lloR N kcoR, Adams has another new album out, Love is Hell, with part two of the Love is Hell series set to come out next month. There's also an album due with his band the Pink Hearts, and also something called The Finger, a hush-hush project done in collaboration with artfully tousled pal Jesse Malin.

Can he be something of a dick, both in print and in person? Sure. But so can your auto mechanic. The difference? Your mechanic doesn't make videos. Your mechanic doesn't do photo ops. No one writes about your mechanic.

It's the curse of a prolific artist, whether it be Bob Dylan or Billy Corgan (not that I'm comparing Adams to either of them) -- in that in their prolificacy lies both their greatest strength and ultimate weakness.

However, in this day and age of carefully constructed, cavity-inducing Yawn-pop (or rock, or rap -- take your pick) I'll take a prolific artist. Give me the Corgans and the Dylans and the Bob Pollards and the Will Oldhams of the world. It's true -- you might get a rushed, but still-listenable record full of throwaways. Then again, you might get a classic.

Adams said recently that if something were to happen to him, he'd have an unreleased back catalog to rival the late Tupac Shakur. It's a pretty good comparison, in some ways. As much as he meticulously groomed his faux-thug persona, Tupac Shakur loved to rap, and practiced his rhymes and styles constantly. He loved The Game, and all that went with it.

David Ryan Adams loves The Game. As a songwriter, that's all that really matters.

-- Timothy C. Davis

Fans of Ryan Adams would like to remind those of us not in thrall with Wonder Boy's antics that none of that stuff has anything to do with his music.

It's an intriguing proposition. It relies on the maxim that brilliant artists often make lousy humans - so what, it's the art that matters.

But in Adam's case, the flaws do matter -- for one, because Ryan's "art" is in no way strong enough to make us forget that public persona. In fact, his music, to these ears, suffers from the same shallow, self-serving, I'm-a-hipster-look-at-me flaws. Ryan doesn't lack talent, as some Adams-haters insist. It's precisely because Adams is talented that his public behavior gets in the way of his music.

Where to begin? The on-stage tantrums? The off-stage fisticuffs? The personal tirades? ("You're just so smart, aren't you, man? You're so (expletive) smart. "I'm so smart. I'm so post-collegiate with all my (expletive) little references.'" -- from a love-note left on a critical journalist's answering machine.)

How about the one-way pissing contests with superior musicians? The obvious name dropping and star fucking? (Elton John?) Or the false humility? ("Ten Reasons I Am a Sell-Out Loserbaked Oven-Shithead" -- from a very public note to the Bloodshot label.) The incessant rock-star poses? ("Ooooo, a bottle of whiskey and a handgun in the liner notes? Dude be dangerous!") Or the public hand wringing? (From his web-site: "I'm not putting the album out and I'm not going on tour. I think I quit. In fact, I know I quit.... I don't even like the sound of my own songs anyway.")

If Adams put half that energy into editing his own material and put out one good album a year instead of five mediocre ones -- but, of course, the pundits Ryan hears most clearly are the ones whispering "prolific genius." Take, as another example, the song "Wish You Were Here" from the new record, a melody that's pleasant enough until he gets to the chorus: "It's totally fucked up/I'm totally fucked up/Wish you were here." How ironic! How punk! How edgy saying "fuck" is!

And that's the crux of the issue. All of it, including the music, carries the unpleasant stench of a lurking ulterior motive -- it's all done with one eye firmly on the "units moved" chart and the other on the "Cool Meter."

All Music Guide's Stephen Thomas Erlewine, in a review of the new record, put it this way: "While some of these songs are undeniably catchy, they're essentially reactionary material - the sound of somebody responding to their influences and peers, sometimes in an alluring way, but not quite carving out a personal, idiosyncratic vision . . . but the artifice outweighs the substance throughout Rock N Roll."

As it has throughout his career. Adams is likely to be remembered as the male Madonna, a media-savvy spotlight whore who realized, as Oscar Wilde did, that "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

-- John Schacht

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