Critical Backlash: The Case for Ryan Adams

First thing’s first, because this is a long analytical read. Especially for a music blog.

Ryan Adams – “Words”: mp3

This is from the as-yet-unreleased 18-track Elizabethtown sessions. Onward.

Top 10 Songs of the Year will be posted tomorrow. In the meantime, there are another 16 mp3s to listen to in the posts below this one, so enjoy.


Now, far be it from me to criticize the Los Angeles Times. However, read this article and tell me if you agree with me.

The last time the Times ran anything major on Adams was around 2001, when Robert Hilburn ran a very positive profile of him discussing the Gold album. This one by contrast has a lot of implied negatives and comes off almost as derisive. Look at the subhead: “Ryan Adams isn’t afraid of drama. He’ll keep doing things his way.” Drama? He’s a professional musician, not Lindsay Lohan. He sounds like he’s being compared to a petulant teenager.

Beyond that, we have the facts. The article demeans his record sales, stating “Two of the last five (albums) have fallen far short of the 100,000 sales figure that represents his core fan base.” Last time I checked, Jacksonville City Nights had indeed only sold about 58,000 copies, but Cold Roses was well over 150,000. Evens out nicely, doesn’t it? Could the lower sales figures for the other “short”-selling of his three albums (the article doesn’t say which one) have anything to do with the fact that Demolition was a collection of demos and not marketed a serious follow-up to Gold, or that Love Is Hell was initially confusingly released as two seperate EPs on different dates before a single-disc version came out much later? When Ryan Adams puts out a “Ryan Adams album” – like Cold Roses – he more than meets sales expectations.

In another curious decision, Adams himself is only quoted (and in huge blocks, full of “…” signifying cuts by the author) in the last column or so of the article, so by the very structure, there’s no real room for a back-and-forth argument. Not to mention how carefully Adams’ quotes are selected. There’s a point where he says, “…I’m the best,” and then goes on to discuss his prolificacy, but that sure sounds a lot more pompous and self-important than something like, “At going into the studio and getting things done, I’m the best,” doesn’t it? Read the comparatively unabridged interviews with Amanda Petrusich on Pitchforkmedia, and if anything, Adams appears to not take himself or the importance of his music too seriously, praising the work ethic that he finally has the chance to mention in the last line of the Times quote. By the time you get there, the two parts of the paragraph almost feel contradictory, probably due to the edit. We can’t say, but the part that hasn’t been notably altered matches his prior statements and the other, well, doesn’t.

The last paragraph in particular gnaws at me:
“Good night and good luck. And to Luke Lewis (president and founder of Lost Highway, Adams’ label) too, who is sounding ever more plaintive in retrospect. ‘The three records are good,’ Lewis says. ‘And we’re all sitting around waiting for great…Hopefully he’ll stumble into that.”

For one, Adams won a Grammy last year, if that’s any measure of the kind of critical success this article is talking about. For another, the critics have never been particularly kind to Adams. Gold, which this article portrays as the peak of Adams’ success, only has a 76 on Metacritic, a mere 6 points over this year’s Jacksonville City Nights. Reviews for all his albums have been mixed – 29 got 5 stars from Uncut and many fans are hailing it as his best work in ages, while gave it 2 stars and a cursory review. (Personally, I think history will see 29 as his second classic, but there’s no denying that it requires a kind of serious attention that many critics simply lack the time for.) The Times’ review, appearing in the same issue, says that Adams ought to be on “suicide watch,” yet how miserable are comparable albums by Neil Young or Bob Dylan? Not to compare 29 to Young’s Tonight’s The Night, but Young’s recording of the album – a harrowing affair of friends’ real-life overdoses and bitter songwriting – was done entirely while drunk and depressed out of his mind, and that’s the stuff of rock ‘n’ roll legend.

Besides, if the president of your own label doesn’t think you’re “great,” why should anyone else give him a shot? If that’s not an obvious implication, I don’t know what is.


You don’t need to hear me make the case for Ryan Adams. I’m obviously a die-hard fan and if you are too, than I’m preaching to the choir. What I do want to see is for him to be taken seriously. This article seems aimed NOT at discovering what makes him the most prolific musician since the days of Neil Young and Bob Dylan (remember them? They had no trouble cranking out an album or a two a year, and the fabled “Neil Young Archive” is thought to be gigantic), and more towards taking potshots at a musician who has chosen to follow his own muse rather than pursue the mainstream course followed by, say, Bright Eyes, who is mentioned in the article as supplanting Adams commercially. How many albums did he release this year? Didn’t he do an electro-pop album which tanked commercially and critically? Isn’t he on a medium-size indie label for which Ryan Adams numbers would be tremendous?

Adams is not perfect, but he comes out with a great album about as often as Radiohead does, so in the long run what difference does it make? Ryan Adams deserves a fair shake, critics and journalists. Let’s give him one.


Critical Backlash is a column where I complain about things.