Ryan Adams & the Cardinals - III/IVIII/IV (PaxAm) is the fifth studio album by Ryan Adams & the Cardinals. It comes by its title as a result of the fact that it was recorded during the same 2006 sessions that yielded Easy Tiger (which was recorded with the Cardinals but billed as a solo album). Had the double album been released at the time it would have been the band’s third and fourth albums. The sessions, which were scheduled to take two weeks, ended up going on for six months and produced some 60 tracks, most of which have been languishing in the vault until now. Why these songs did not see the light of day at the time remains a mystery, but Adams is nothing if not enigmatic. He is also one of the most prolific and talented songwriters of the decade, and III/IV is his masterpiece.

The album features the classic Cardinals lineup that included the brilliant and innovative guitarist Neal Casal (his first sessions with the band), bass player Catherine Popper (her last sessions with the band), Brad Pemberton on drums, steel guitar player Jon Graboff, and album producer Jamie Candiloro on piano and synths. Adams effortlessly deploys such a vast panoply of songwriting styles that it could be seen as showing off if not for the fact that every song works so well, and that they all hang together perfectly. I’m told that there’s a concept at work here that has something to do with the ’80s. I’m not sure what it is or whether I should care, but whether it’s power-pop as in the irresistible “Numbers” and “Stop Playing With My Heart,” the hard rocking “Icebreaker,” the bizarro soul meets phantasmagorical Bill Murray cocktail lounge sounds of “Star Wars,” the sweet Americana of “The Crystal Skull,” the Todd Rundgren homage “Kisses Start Wars,” or the Dead style jam that concludes the closing “Hit the Lights,” Adams and the Cardinals get it right at every turn.

Doing the unexpected has almost become the expected when it comes to Ryan Adams. In early 2009, Adams announced that he was quitting the Cardinals, leaving behind the best band he ever had. He cited a hearing loss associated with Méniére’s Disease, disillusionment with the music industry and the press, and the behavior of audiences. Since this is Ryan Adams that we’re talking about, his decision would seem to be in no way final. Now comes III/IV, a four year old album that represents his finest work with the Cardinals. It comes too late in the year to be included on most year-end lists, but it will certainly be on mine, which appears tomorrow. If you’ve ever wondered why Ryan Adams continues to matter, despite the sometimes hit-or-miss nature of his music and his occasionally erratic behavior, here’s your answer.