‘Til Somebody Kills the Lights’: A review of Ryan Adams’ III/IV
by Jeremy Griffin
A while back, a friend and I were discussing whether or not Ryan Adams was overrated. My friend claimed that he was, his reasoning being that despite Adams’ extensive catalogue, and despite the fact that nearly all of his songs could be classified as “good,” he had yet to produce anything with any real staying power–nothing that might qualify as “great.” Whereas most of the truly great songwriters manage to generate at least a couple of signature songs—that is, songs that more or less emblemize the grandness of their talent, like Neil Young’s “Needle and the Damage Done” or Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,”—Adams’ closest blush to this might have been “When the Stars Go Blue” off his album Gold—and even that was mostly the work of Tim McGraw, who covered the song on his second Greatest Hits album in 2006.
However, as I explained to my friend, this is the very same thing that I think makes Adams such a phenomenal songwriter. The key word here is good: given the volume of tunes that the thirty-six-year-old so breezily dashes off year after year, you’d think you’d be able to find one or two that fall short of the mark, but there hardly ever is. Moreover, this seems intentional. It is almost as if Adams is burdened by the understanding that a great song—and even a good one sometimes—can ruin a career just as easily as it can launch it (for example: Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a great song, and yet as the band has admitted, it also represented the beginning of their collective end).
So, okay, let me be completely upfront about this: I love everything Ryan Adams does. Everything. There was no chance I was not going to like this album. I would listen to the man read from the phonebook. Even his infamous phone message to rock critic Jim DeRogatis, in which Adams throws a tantrum befitting of a tween about DeRogatis’ review of one of his shows, is endearing in a way that I can’t quite figure out.
There was, however, some doubt as to how much I would like it. Because as any Adams’ fan will tell you, as prolific he may be, he has put out a few clunkers in the past (see: 2008’s Cardinology).
Fortunately, Adams appears to have come to terms with the schizoid nature of his music: III/IV plays like a greatest hits album, pulling from his impressive portfolio of styles. There are poppy, fuzzed-out tracks like “No” and “Kisses Start Wars,” which hearken back to the grungy musical aesthetic of Rock and Roll; there’s the elegantly somber “Ultraviolet Light,” which could pass as a B-side from Cold Roses; and then are tunes like “Star Wars,” whose jarring shifts between time signatures preclude it from any classification but, at the very least, make for a very interesting listening experience.
Is III/IV Adams’ best album yet? Not exactly, but it’s up there. In a way, he seems to have lost all concern for classification and marketing and genre, and the result is a spectacularly enjoyable album that tows the line between artistic conscientiousness and glitzy commercial appeal. Adams’ place in the music world is no place at all, that indefinable space between genres.
Most important, however, is how effortless the album seems. That most of his songs, particularly those on III/IV, feel as if they were crafted in under ten minutes is precisely what makes them so enjoyable: they’re good in spite of themselves. Even the less-than-spectacular tunes, the real dregs of his catalogue, outshine most of the capital-G “Great” songs cluttering up the charts. And I realize that I’m committing one of the cardinal sins of music reviewing here in that I’m gushing about the artist while commenting very little on the album in question, but I guess that’s sort of my point: it’s next to impossible to say anything true about Adams in the context of a single album in that each of albums represent only tiny niches of his songwriting abilities. There is a fleeting quality to his music, something pointedly unobtrusive, like a half-second-too-long glance from a stranger on the street, each song an anthem for the moment at which it’s played. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Adams isn’t partcularly interested in the future; rather, he’s interested in trying to capture some ephemeral aspect of the present.