Ryan Adams is a chameleon. He is like that restless boy in school, unable to concentrate on any one thing before getting bored with it and moving on, only to be eventually diagnosed with ADHD. From Whiskeytown to The Cardinals, from country to rock, from acoustic to electric, he shifts identities, as easily as Carlos the Jackal. His albums are generally well received by critics but there was one, ‘Rock N Roll’, which was almost universally panned. And, of course, it is that one which is my own personal favourite.
As the title suggests, ‘Rock N Roll’ is his one out and out rock record but what he seems to be trying to do here is write and play each song in the style of his favourite rock artists. It is a lot of fun trying to guess which artist each song is modelled on. In some cases, for example the first track, it’s not that difficult. Whilst the title ‘This Is It’ alerts you to The Strokes’ reference, so does the opening guitar riff before Adams cheekily intones, “Let me sing a song for you / That’s never been sung before /All the words were meant for you /And never been said before’. It is, of course, a double bluff as every song and word reflect on the rock canon and so the lyric here drips with irony, commenting not only on this particular album, but also on The Strokes’ whole oeuvre.The next track ‘Shallow’ begins with a T Rex guitar riff before the greatest chorus Kurt Cobain never wrote kicks in. It’s that sort of album: classic rock references for the trainspotter (ie me) allied to blistering tunes. ‘1974’ begins with a thunderous guitar riff that Primal Scream would sell their drugs to have written before taking the logical step and becoming a 1974 Stones’ rocker. ‘Wish You Were Here’ thankfully doesn’t sound like Pink Floyd; indeed the opening guitar chords could be Billy Bragg’s ‘A New England’ whilst on ‘So Alive’, “Tonight, Matthew, I shall be U2.” ‘Luminol’ is that great lost Queens of the Stone Age track (circa ‘Rated R’) whilst ‘Do Miss America’ is ‘Murmur’ period REM, complete with barbed lyrical digs at Michael’s good friend Courtney Love (“Hey, come everybody do Miss America / Hey, you know when she goes down it’s hysterical”). Ironically, and believe me there is a lot of irony on this album including songs called ‘She’s Lost Total Control’ and ‘The Drugs Not Working’, ‘Rock N Roll’ itself is a delicate piano ballad, by far the most gentle piece here. ‘Boys’ manages to reference both Nirvana and Blur whilst the closing section of ‘The Drugs Not Working’ is the collected works of Spiritualized. However, the crowning glory of this album is the genius track that is ‘Anybody Wanna Take Me Home’. We already knew how big a fan of The Smiths Adams is: on his very first solo album, the very first track was ‘(Argument with David Rawlings Concerning Morrissey)’. From the opening Johnny Marr guitar to the Morrissey croon, Ryan Adams rivals The Dears as best Smiths’ copyist.
‘Rock N Roll’ isn’t Ryan Adams’ most mature or heartfelt record. It was recorded in less than two weeks as a fuck off to his record company who would not release ‘Love Is Hell’, a far more personal and cogent collection of songs. Yet ‘Rock N Roll’ is knowing, clever and dumb all at the same time. The lyrics, by and large, lack the sensitivity and intelligence that has always been Adams’ calling card but the music is a lot of fun to listen to, an album chock-full of great tunes, almost a K-tel compilation of your favourite artists singing unknown songs. If you want a record to get your party started, a record to kickstart your weekend, a record to leap around your bedroom and throw some shapes, ‘Rock N Roll’ delivers in (Ace Of) spades.