Listening Booth: Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, “Cardinology”

Written by Listening Booth, Music

Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, Cardinology (2008)
purchase this album (Amazon)

It’s been fashionable for the last few years to slag Ryan Adams at every turn. There’s no doubt that he’s brought some of this animosity on himself by virtue of some less than discrete behavior, notably at his live performances.

I’ve always been one to believe that the proof is in the grooves, or whatever they call the equivalent on a CD. When judged by this criteria, it’s hard to think of another artist who has created the sheer volume of music that Adams has in recent years, while maintaining reasonably high standards. Sure, he’s shot and missed, but his misses are generally more interesting that a lot of other artists’ hits.

Word has it that Ryan Adams wanted this album to be billed as being by the Cardinals, without his name involved. In interviews he’s said that he is happiest just being a member of the band, and at live shows he has lined up with the other band members, and not claimed his spot as the frontman. It appears that a compromise was reached with his record company. The new album, Cardinology, carries the credit Ryan Adams and the Cardinals. Apparently Adams got his Cardinals, and Lost Highway got their Ryan Adams.

It’s not hard to understand why Adams loves his band. They are perfect foils for his songwriting. They play as a tight unit. No one tries to grab the spotlight, and despite Adams’ notoriety, it really does sound like a band, and not some guys backing up a singer.

It took me a few plays to really get into this album. At first, while I found several of the songs appealing, I found the album production by Tom Schick to be somewhat lifeless. Repeated listening allowed me to discover subtleties that weren’t obvious right off the bat, and the songs grew and grew in stature. Cardinology (Lost Highway) eventually revealed itself to be Adams’ strongest effort in quite some time, perhaps going back as far as 2000’s Heartbreaker.

Adams has a knack for creating exquisitely crafted songs, and he is so prolific that it can appear effortless, as if he’s just able to toss off songs at will. The truth is that his brand of workmanship requires not only great talent, but great dedication to his art. A perfect example is Cardinology’s second song, “Go Easy.” Chiming electric guitars and a committed vocal performance highlight this proclamation of undying love.

Other standout tracks include “Cobwebs,” and “Natural Ghost.” Adams has saved the best for last though:

I know a sickness
So ancient and cross
No crucifix
Could ever fix enough
In the basement of a church
These people, they talk
There is a line
That must be walked
If you wanna make it stop
Then stop

“Stop” is a career highlight. It’s a haunting meditation on addiction, a plea to a loved one (or perhaps the writer himself) to quit before it’s too late. Lyrically brilliant and musically beautiful, “Stop” is a song that will stay with you for a very long time.

So let’s make a deal. Ryan Adams has cleaned up his act. Let’s clean up ours. Let’s return to a time when we could greet each of his releases with an open mind, and a high level of expectation. He is one of our greatest songwriters, and it’s time that he gets the credit he deserves.