Ryan Adams: Heatwave | Star Sign | 1985 | Sword & Stone [Album Review]

Ryan Adams

Star Sign


Sword & Stone

PAX-AM [2024]

Album Overview: There are a lot of opinions floating around about singer/songwriter Ryan Adams and his attempts to rebuild his career. But even a casual observer would agree, this guy is prolific. After releasing an album each in 2020 and ’21, Adams unleashed four of his own imagining in ’22, and then to round out the year produced two cover albums, tributes to the songwriting of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. 2023 only saw the release of another tribute cover album, Oasis’ “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory,” although Adams returned to the concert stage, often hand-picking and promoting the chosen venues.

So, you’d be safe thinking that Adams would come into the new year with a new album of original material, but I doubt anyone expected him to produce four separate projects of his new songs, conveniently divided by Adams’ primary choices of genres, plus a live concert recording of his 2017 release, Prisoner. While the initial impression when faced with this landslide of new music – 63 tracks in all – is to wonder “why?” until it dissolves into “how?” and back again to “why?,” once you break it down to bitesize pieces (and realize that that 4th album, 1985 is made up of 27 song snippets, musical hooks and riffs, unfinished ideas that he’s decided not to leave on the drawing board), you realize again for the 4th or 5th time in the last two plus decades that Ryan Adams is actually a damn good songwriter.

Musical Style: Adams got his start in the alt-country band, Whiskeytown, but throughout his early solo career, he explored “Rock ‘N’ Roll” in its many derivations, from the most aggressive punk to classic rock with his passion for accessible pop melodies, and crunchy guitar hooks. The fourteen tracks on Heatwave find Adams delivering most of the raw, hard rockin’ songs in these wide-ranging musical explorations. On the other end of the spectrum, Star Sign opens with an old school classic rock ballad, “Self-Defence,” but as the album progresses you get more acoustic and country music instrumentation, like the rare harmonica solos that augment “Tomorrow Never Comes” and the 10-song collection’s title track. Here’s the closest Adams gets to reproducing the sounds he shared with his band, The Cardinals.

Evolution of Sound: On Sword & Stone, Ryan seems to put more attention on production values, no doubt recognizing that this collection of pop/rock leans toward the more commercially accessible sound. On the other hand, with 1985 Adams has come up with a solution that every musician with recording equipment runs into, what to do with a box of tapes of special nuggets and fun jams that aren’t something you’d want to release, but there’s something there you don’t want to lose: a certain guitar riff, the energy and noise of a punk rant, a special moment in time. Well, Adams has pulled together 27 tracks, no doubt recorded in 1985, all under 2 min., mostly hard, aggressive punk, and put it out there for the rest of us to figure out. Good luck with that.

Artists with Similar Fire: Like the previous albums, there are songs giving strong nods to influences like Neil Young, and Bruce Springsteen here, but over 30 albums in Adams has developed his own niche in blue-collar Rock & Roll and Americana.

Pivotal Tracks: You can often rely on Adams to write some serious bangers, and he’s conveniently collected most of his heaviest material on Heatwave, with three of the strongest at the top: the short, fast punk of “Lies,” the big crunchy guitars of classic hard rocker, “Mercy,” and the crisp, chiming chords of the title track. But if this is your jam of choice there are 12 more right after these three. Similarly, Adams tends to open his albums with his strongest material, So it is on Sword & Stone, and Star Sign, On the first of those two, “Blizzard in the Room” is an acoustic ballad that is a bright spot, and on the second there’s a couple that offer a fun juxtaposition, “Darkness” followed by “Shine Thru the Dark.”

Lyrical Strength: As prolific as Adams is as a songwriter, his lyrics tend to revolve around a guy trying to get through modern life, one day at a time as it were. But it’s all pretty pedestrian singer/songwriter stock with reliable poetic rhymes. When a track takes on something heavy like “Nuclear War,” which conveniently rhymes with “kiss from afar,” Adams concludes all is hopeless, “We’re running out of time/It’s over, it’s too late.” I think we can hope for more. Given all that’s in the public record about the accusations of the women in his life, you might expect some of his struggles to rebuild his life and career would find their way into his songs, like the opening track to his “Wednesday” album: “I’m sorry and I love you,” a song some of his accusers announced didn’t go far enough. There’s a familiar vagueness hanging over “Manhattan in the Rain,” with its generic plea: “Give me a little more time, maybe/I’m sorry about everything, baby.”

FM (2022) / Chris (2022) / Wednesdays (2020) / Prisoner B-Sides (2017) / Prisoner (2017) / 1989 (2015) / Live At Carnegie Hall (2015) / Ryan Adams (2014)

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Brian Q. Newcomb