Ryan Adams’s music has always walked a fine line between heavy schmaltz and affecting sentiment, a line similar to that threaded between his songs’ classic country melancholy and radio-friendly pop balladry. His early albums with Whiskeytown presented idyllic pastoral scenes that made hay of emotional fatigue, the dead-end despair of nowhere towns paired with the wrecks of ruined relationships; his later solo work adapted that bleakness into an urban context, telling stories of dreamers and burnouts for whom old wounds served as badges of honor. The habit of mixing downhearted fatalism into the broad sweep of the classic power ballad has remained a constant in his songs, but it’s become more problematic as the coarseness of Adams’s countervailing nasty side has softened, making for music which spends far more time on the wrong side of maudlin. He softens even further on Ryan Adams, a dreary, spineless collection of half-baked songs that float by on the fumes of middle-aged wistfulness.
The release of a self-titled album more than a decade into a solo career is inevitably a declaration of some sort of purpose, especially if that effort is the first following a three-year break, a rare interlude following a long period of constant activity. Unfortunately, that statement of purpose, coming after the uneven return to solo recording of 2011’s Ashes & Fire, seems to be the once-fiery singer rebranded as a diluted version of himself, one content to pump out reflective soft rock cast in a too-familiar mold. Tracks like “Stay with Me” shoddily slap together lyrical clichés, humming organ, and cheesy guitar lines, more callow and basic than similar work in the past. “Let Go” pushes forward fully into unearned sentimentality, pairing drippy piano with sappy autumnal imagery. There are fleeting moments of tender prettiness, but for the most part this is pap, summed up by the breathy, cooing backing vocals that appear on songs like “Gimme Something Good” and “Am I Safe,” shooting for atmospheric, but only further underscoring the mushiness of the material.
Where Adams once presented a personal sound that, if not entirely unique, at least felt singular, he’s now lost the spark of originality, making for the sort of anonymous, streamlined dreck that flooded ’80s rock radio, more akin to surname-mate Bryan than his own early-aughts work. At best, he’s managing a pale imitation of Bruce Springsteen’s lovelorn-crooner persona during his Tunnel of Love period, all romantically tousled exhaustion and abject longing, as much obsessed with the past’s impenetrability as it’s memories. At his worst here, Adams sounds drab and anonymous, settling for strings of lyrics shaped wholly from clichés and stock images, fringing on aimless self-parody. He may have matured in the last 14 years, but there’s no indication that’s been good for his music, which on Ryan Adams feels lazier and more watered down than ever before.