Smooth and mostly sunny, Cardinology hums along on the fumes of better Ryan Adams material, infrequently surprising us with something glittering in its own tepid milieu. His third album with the Cardinals has slight focus problems but mostly settles on being entirely average, serving up a mix of cheery alt-country, sneering rock and soggy adult contemporary—thankfully not in equal proportion. This is an album that plays like a nice drive through the country with a few unnecessary stops.
In some ways Cardinology seems like a filed down counterpoint to 2005’s Cold Roses, ratcheting down its double-album aspirations but keeping the same sound and divided form: half the size, half the edge, roughly half the quality. Cold Roses only had five more songs but felt much bigger, more unified, shaping Adams’s dual image (sweet country boy vs. big-city asshole) into a combined product that hinted at the strengths of both. Cardinology, on the other hand, feels segregated, with country and rock sections keeping mostly their distance from song to song. This means that the country is earnest and reserved, the rock dumb and loud, and the two never jibe into something more. The country material works better because it’s more laidback—slide guitar-driven ballads with strikingly positive messages—or maybe because it doesn’t try as hard. The rock songs are less numerous but they beg for radio airplay—flat, catchy and disconcertingly bland.
The extreme examples on both sides fare the worst. “Magick” musters the most kick but wears thin with its “We Didn’t Start the Fire” cadence and verses hinging on half-assed wordplay: “You’re like a rain cloud/If it rained mushroom clouds…You’re like a storm tower/If it had firepower.” Album-closing weeper “Stop” collapses almost immediately under its own drippiness and spends another five minutes spreading out into a teary puddle. This disaster is indicative of the only real danger to the health of the country songs, which are full of often-dainty lyrics, soaring pronouncements of encouragement doted on by shimmering melodic backing.
It’s to Adams’s credit that he manages to take these messages and push them across as charming rather than cloying. He has found ways to marry sentiment with strut before, and when it happens here, as it does in the steady march that propels “Born Into a Light” and the guitar solo bridge on “Like Yesterday,” the album has a powerful presence. These moments are rare, however, and too often Cardinology seems content to float along on an oily sea of good feelings and bad attitude.