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Ryan Adams’ music battles with erratic image

Ryan Adams fiercely defends his output and behavior during the past decade even as he openly worries that his erratic image may permanently overshadow his music.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sometimes, when Ryan Adams brought samples of his new music to show label chief Luke Lewis what he was doing — and there were plenty of those opportunities over the last few years — Adams snuck in a little test.

Adams would insert a nonsense lyric in the middle of the song, something totally unrelated to what he was singing about. Just as a test. Just to see if Lewis was really listening.

It was ingenious and infuriating at the same time.

Welcome to the world of Ryan Adams.

Lewis can talk rhapsodically about Adams’ talent — call him a genius, even — yet also explain why the just-released “Easy Tiger” is likely the songwriter’s last new disc for Lost Highway Records. Adams fiercely defends his output and behavior during the past decade even as he openly worries that his erratic image may permanently overshadow his music.

“I had to be difficult many times in order to maintain a sense of dignity and try to keep the work first,” Adams told The Associated Press, chain smoking during much of an interview. “It did drive me crazy — over the edge many times — but I really did believe in what I was doing. I’m glad that the work is there and it will speak for itself later.”

Kicked drugs, alcoholAdams, 32, is clear-eyed and determined these days. The North Carolina native, who played in the band Whiskeytown during the 1990s before turning solo, lives with his girlfriend in New York. He has been sober for more than a year after kicking a prodigious drug and alcohol problem, although he resists the easy assumption that sobriety has improved his art.

As a singer and songwriter, he’s capable of work that is extraordinarily beautiful when you least expect it. Listen, for example, to “This House is Not for Sale,” where he vividly captures the desperation of a man trying to stop his estranged lover from taking a final step away by reminding her of the good memories in the floorboards.

The gorgeous “When the Stars Go Blue” caught the attention of Tim McGraw, who recorded it and turned it into a hit single.

Stephen King even wrote the press release accompanying “Easy Tiger.” “I won’t say Adams is the best North American singer-songwriter since Neil Young,” he wrote. “But I won’t say he isn’t, either.”

Yet the sheer volume of his output means listeners need to sift through a lot of less remarkable songs to find the special moments, and many simply don’t have the patience. He released three albums in 2005 alone, and one of them had two discs.

The industry shorthand: Adams lacks an internal editor and anyone strong enough to do it for him.

Bad boy reputation
Ejecting a heckler requesting a Bryan Adams song from one of his concerts earned him a reputation as a brat and bad boy (Adams defends that action, saying the heckler was spoiling the concert for those around him).

“He’s consistently shot himself in the foot,” said Greg Kot, critic for the Chicago Tribune. “He’s had erratic live performances — not just erratic, but I’ve seen some abysmal ones — and really disposable records, records with some glimmers, little gems on them but way too inconsistent to consider him a top-tier talent.”

Adams believes he’s punished for refusing to adhere to an industry standard where artists spend a longer time polishing fewer songs, and new releases generally come every two or three years. Business usually dictates this schedule, to give record companies time to market the music.

The idea seems to drive him nuts, although he consciously made an effort to follow the advice of others and spend more time on “Easy Tiger.”

“I felt I had, if not a gift, some kind of a drive that I couldn’t explain that led me to make music at a good rate and I could focus on it for eight or 10 hours a day,” he said.

He’s released nine albums since 2000, although Adams said he’s actually made 15.

Even that may be understating things. Lost Highway’s Lewis said the company has some 170 unreleased Adams songs in the vault. “We wound up trying to form albums out of the spurts of creativity that he had,” he said, and he’s still trying to figure out a way to get some of this material out.

“It’s all very good work,” Adams said. “It’s all above and beyond the call of what I recognized was out there. In no way am I saying that it was better, but I think I was doing work that required as much thought and was handled with as much decency as anything I had seen in music.”

Failure to become major starLewis has bosses, though. Adams’ inability to play by the rules means it’s unlikely Lost Highway will sign him to another contract, and his failure to become the major star that many had anticipated makes that decision easier. Adams may be perfectly suited to join the legions of artists that have taken control of their career and do what they want, Lewis said.

Being a fan got him through the difficult moments, he added.

“His music has brains,” Lewis said. “It’s really intelligent, and not just lyrically. Musically he’s a genius.”

Adams has complained, publicly and frequently, about Lost Highway’s treatment of him and his music. At least some of the time, there was a wink involved. A tape once surfaced online of a phone argument between him and Lewis; it was made as a joke that two of them laughed about later.

“Was Ryan wound a little more tightly than anybody else?” Lewis said. “Maybe so. He was also abusing himself a little bit. Did he maybe want the attention from that behavior? Possibly. He’s capable of manipulating his image.”

Much of his work is revealing about his life, perhaps too revealing, Adams said. He was nervous through much of his 20s, while also suffering from one of the most common afflictions of that time of life — cockiness without wisdom.

Adams has settled in with a regular backing band, the Cardinals, well suited to the country-flavored rock and ballads that fill “Easy Tiger.” The disc is billed as a solo album, although Adams said he wants to make albums billed simply as the Cardinals, without his name up front.

Adams is concerned that the drinking and drugging, the times that he’s shown a quick temper onstage, is overshadowing the music that he’s making.

“All of these things, they’re very quick catch-phrases, they’re there to sum up a life of work but none of them are about the work,” he said. “They’re about me.”