10 Years Ago: Ryan Adams Releases ’29,’ His Third Album of 2005
Back in 2005, Ryan Adams released three albums and one of them (Cold Roses) contained 41 songs. By way of comparison, the Grateful Dead released roughly that same amount of new music between 1978 and 1989.
And speaking of Grateful Dead comparisons, the opening (and title) track of Adams' third album of 2005, 29, is a doppelganger of the Dead's "Truckin'", right down to the cocaine references. Such a derivative cut makes for a weak opening, but good things come to those who wait. The next track, "Strawberry Wine," is a waltz-time acoustic song reminiscent of Harvest-era Neil Young, but at least in terms of technical proficiency Adams' voice is superior to Shakey's.
Which brings us to the third track, "Night Birds." It's one of only two songs on the album that Adams wrote prior to entering the studio for the two-week session that resulted in 29, and it shows. It's one of the finest cuts in the singer's catalog. In a just universe, "Night Birds" would scale the lofty heights of pop culture consciousness enjoyed by its '70s-era singer-songwriter influences. Instead, it hides in the branches of Adams' prolific output, spotted only by those willing to take a hard look.
Although Adams only had one other song ready when he walked into the studio, producer Ethan Johns notes that shouldn't be misconstrued as the singer showing up unprepared. Johns told Paste "the amount of verse this guy has at his fingertips is astounding, particularly when, at any given moment, 90 percent of it hasn’t been written down...There were anything from kernels of ideas to almost-done stuff that he would pull out and finish off here right before we recorded it."
The process was simple: Johns would press record, Adams would start playing and the producer would follow along on the drum kit. The idea was to work quickly, keeping the material as fresh as possible. Johns notes in the same interview that when listening to 29, "you’re really listening to the first time a complete run-through of the song has ever been performed... which is why I think the performances on that record are so tangible."
"Blue Sky Blues" is an outstanding example of that spontaneity, sounding less like an album track than a visit to Adams' living room. It's got a level of intimacy that some find endearing and irritates others. Critic Robert Christgau said, "These meanderings are the kind of indulgence that end label deals."
And he wasn't altogether wrong. For example, "The Sadness" is half-baked pseudo-flamenco meets Urge Overkill, but it's not without its charms. The opening riff of "Carolina Rain" sounds too much like what it is – a simple scale – and Adams' vocal delivery is marred by cliched hillbilly histrionics. Accusations of "meandering indulgence" are the price one pays for delivering 12 years' worth of music in 12 months – the lesser cuts end up filling space between true classics, providing easy fodder for acerbic critics.
Speaking of classics, the other song that Adams arrived at the studio with was "Elizabeth, You Were Born to Play That Part." The phrase "achingly beautiful" is trite, but it's meant for moments exactly like this: when a song's individual parts come together in a manner that just can't be described any other way.
The album closer "Voices" features the most uneven performance on 29, not just in terms of Adams' vocals but also his playing and the actual recording. There are moments when the meters are pushed way too deeply into the red (no Pro Tools for producer Johns) and there are moments when Adams doesn't quite find that note he's reaching for. Whether this is bad or good depends solely on the listener. If you're a fan of demos and bootlegs, you'll appreciate a take this loose. But if you want slick and polished, you're in the wrong place.
Upon its release, the album was greeted with mixed (but mostly positive) reviews and moderate sales. After Adams' prolific 2005, fans had to wait until 2007 for Adams' next album. Since then, he's released albums at a steady, but more reasonable pace.
Is 29 mandatory listening? For Ryan Adams fans, it absolutely is. But for the general public, it might be too deep of a rabbit hole – like listening to a B-side collection before ever hearing the choice material. That said, there are at least two genuine classics here, and that's more than most performers record in a lifetime.