The problem with Ryan Adams is also the best part about Ryan Adams: there is such a wealth of material. For the uninitiated, it can be a daunting task trying to find out where to begin, with multiple online-only songs, secret projects, bootlegged “unreleased” material, and other bands such as Whiskeytown all offering worthy listening experiences. Whiskeytown in and of itself deserves its own separate entries.
Though Adams is not-nearly as prolific and release-happy as Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices, the comparison is mostly just – here lies a brilliant songwriter, who releases a multitude of material that makes diehard fans squeal with joy, casual fans confused, and newcomers scared of where to begin.
Thankfully, Adams provides a great starting point for listening to his solo material with Demolition. Released after Adams’ best-selling and arguably most popular album to date, Gold, the Demolition album is the product of the prolific Adams writing and recording a reported four albums’ worth of material. Though it was originally his plan to release all of this material as a boxed set, the record company execs came in and asked him nicely to pare it down (not the first time the record execs would make a request to change Adams’ plan – the most publicized change having to do with the Love Is Hell and Rock N Roll albums, which we will surely get to later). The result was Demolition.
One might ask why a record of demos, half-finished songs and b-side material that Adams decided not to use (or rather that the record company decided needed to be pared down into a more listenable and commercially viable chunk) would be a great place to start. The primary is because on Demolition, we get a glimpse of the myriad forms Adams’ music can take.
On “Nuclear,” the album’s opening tune, is quintessential Ryan Adams: alt-country overtones, acoustic guitar and electric guitar rhythms, a pissed off and anthemic chorus, great lyrics, Adams’ alternately breathy and snarling vocals, and most of all, a kind of relaxed, lazy detachment that Adams best songs always have.
“Hallelujah” comes next, this time without the punky distorted guitars, but with that passionate-yet-uninterested singing, supported by some of Adams’ most gorgeous lyrics, great background vocals, a comfortably familiar harmonica, and Americana chord structures. It contains one of my favorite Adams’ lyrics: “I’d only trade you in for Mary Magdalene.” I love you sweetie, but hey, you know, she was kind of important, he seems to say – again, passion with a detachment that any 20-something growing up in American can relate to.
While some critics panned the barebones structural nature of some of the songs, the minimal accompaniment of “You Will Always Be The Same” lends it a storyteller’s charm, and lends it familiarity with Adams’ first solo album, Heartbreaker. By contrast, “Starting to Hurt” points directly to the take on modern rock and the garage rock revival that Adams would perfect on Rock N Roll.
To my ears, the first 6 songs are solid gold, some of Adams’ best songwriting. The perfectly capture his irreverent, irresponsible, and completely understandable look at the world, love, and human interaction. A good deal of his material seems to deal with either growing up or breaking up. This compilation seems to capture that without being a lame greatest hits package.
The astute listener will love the interplay between the guitar and piano on “Cry on Demand,” the steel guitar on “Nuclear,” the laid-back vibe of “Tennessee Sucks.” The listener seeking emotional content will likely find something tasteful and relatable on every track. To me, “She Wants to Play Hearts” is a little lacking, and the second half of the album doesn’t capture me as much as the first.
Perhaps the best thing about starting off your Ryan Adams collection with Demolition is that the next album you purchase by Adams should seem familiar, no matter which one it is. It seems like all of his many styles are captured on this one album, from the country of Jacksonville City Nights to the dark introspection and indie rock trappings of Love Is Hell.
With an artist as prolific and polarizing as Adams, there are bound to be those who vehemently disagree with Demolition as a primer to Adams’ music, but for my money it is a worthy addition to any record collection and a great doorway into Adams’ superb solo work. It may be his least consistent-throughout album, but it is a great place to start.
What To Get Next: Love Is Hell is damn-near perfect, but of the newer stuff, Easy Tiger is a great listen, too
Recommended If You Like: The Jayhawks, Whiskeytown, The Strokes, Jeff Buckley (kind of), folk rock, outlaw country