Reviewing the Reviews: Ryan Adams – Cardinology

Maybe someone can write a “Ryan Adams Album Review Generator” program where some software will just spit out all the necessary buzzwords for a review that somehow says his new album is good and that his old ones are also good but do it in some sort of backhanded compliment way.

It must include the word PROLIFIC, as well as pastiche, antics, Gram Parsons, editor, enfant terrible and/or “bad boy,” Grateful Dead, focus, quality/quantity, and something about dating actresses or whatever…

Perusing 18 different published reviews of Ryan Adams and The Cardinals new Cardinology CD, I was amazed and amused at what I found. Sure, there’s was the usual varying of opinions (some loved it, some sorta liked it, some found it predictable and boring), but that’s to be expected with any album. Reading the reviews, apparently someone must have invented that “Ryan Adams Album Review Generator” software, cuz it’s obviously been put to some use.

Among these 18 reviews, the word “prolific” is used 12 times (including two mentions of “prolificacy” and one time Adams is even called “insanely prolific”). It is the very first word of one review, the second word of another, and it appears in the first sentence of five other reviews and in the second sentence of yet another two. One review claims that “he became obsessive-compulsive about recording anything that rhymed.”

The Grateful Dead is mentioned six times, Gram Parsons four times, and Neil Young three times. In what must be a software glitch, U2 and/or Bono is mentioned an astounding 11 times (more on that later). Variations on “quantity vs. quality” come up at least six times in addition to three references to “edit” or “editing,” and four mentions of “focus.”

With all the talk about being “prolific,” and in attempt to illustrate the “quantity/quality” point, we eventually reach the fuzzy math portion of these reviews. According to some direct quotes:

*Ryan Adams has been making music at an insane pace for more than 10 years.
*Focused on just the one LP this year (he put out three in 12 months not too long ago)
*He recorded three albums in 2005 alone (Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights and 29), and he hasn’t missed a year since before this decade began.
*He’s released 10 albums in nine years
*While it might be a short time between albums for many modern-day artists, 16 months is a long time in the world of Ryan Adams, who released three albums in 2005
*Their fourth album in as many years
*Ryan Adams returns with what seems like his millionth album,
*His first release in a year — notable for a guy who put out three full-lengths in 2005
*Five-year period starting in 1997 that spanned two bands and five exquisitely realized albums.
*Cardinology is Adams’ fifth full-length album released in the last three years (not to mention the 2007 EP, Follow the Lights).

Ignoring the varying inaccuracies of some of these statements, the guy’s job is to make records. So he’s made about 11 records over 9 years? (This includes Demolition, assembled from demos from unreleased albums to capitalize on the success of Gold, and the 7-song EP Follow the Lights with only 3 new songs.) Is that REALLY too much? Sure, it’s a bit more than the usual 2-3-year wait between records to maximize hype that the Music Business Formerly Known as the Record Industry might prefer. But some of these reviews make it sound like he does 3 records every single year. It’s actually really an average of close to one each year. As it should be.

The strangest thing I’ve found is that, all of a sudden, the Cardinals are often being compared to U2. Huh? U2? Other than perhaps his 2003 single “So Alive,” I don’t think Ryan Adams has ever sounded like U2 or even close enough to warrant comparison (including on this new album). I can maybe hear how, in “Go Easy,” when he sings “if only just to say this to you now…” the melody and delivery is kinda/sorty dripping with syrupy Bononess, but only slightly. And I don’t know if I ever would have thought of that if U2 wasn’t mentioned in so many Cardinology reviews.

Again, actual quotes from the reviews:

*“Fix It” even dares to blossom into the type of stadium-filling chorus that U2’s Bono would be proud to call his own.
*U2 knock-offs “Go Easy” and “Cobwebs”
*“Cobwebs” …boasts one of the best choruses on the LP (and another that seems to be taking its cues from the U2 style of epic songwriting).
*“Magick” and “Cobwebs” cringe-worthy horrors that would shame even Bono.
*[In concert the band was] producing a hybrid that echoed Neil Young, the Byrds, Gram Parsons, U2 and the Grateful Dead.”
*…a couple of tunes veer close to overblown U2 territory.
*when he sings “Cobwebs,” his voice ascends to Bono-like melodramatic heights.
*”Magick” echoes like prime U2
…the slinkier “Fix It” (and its almost U2 moments — ditto “Go Easy” on the Bono thing), etc.
*Cardinology is a classic-rock record to the bone, nodding to influences that Adams has conjured before but never so well: the country rock of the Grateful Dead and Gram Parsons, the arena anthems of U2.
*“Fix It” … with a soaring Bono-style chorus…

But wait, maybe it doesn’t sound like U2, since one reviewer declares “Those looking for anthemic rock will be better served by U2.”

That’s not the only contradiction these reviews are inevitably filled with. For example, after saying he’s best known for quantity over quality, one reviewer then says: “Last year’s Easy Tiger, billed as a return to form, was the sound of Adams trying too hard to edit himself. By making a concerted effort to rein in his self-indulgence, Adams also leeched away some of the recklessness and spontaneity that makes him so fascinating.” Very similar sentiment has also been applied to the new album in this and other reviews. They all cry (and have complained in past reviews) that he needs an editor and he’s reckless and too prolific and unfocused. So he tones it down and “edits” himself, puts out a “focused” record (just ONE this year!) and then they bitch that he’s “leeched away some of the recklessness and spontaneity that makes him so fascinating.”

Another typical contradiction is that many of these same rock critics were the ones hailing him as a genius or The New Dylan following his solo debut Heartbreaker and then championing his inevitable rockstar breakout upon the release of its follow up, Gold. But now some of these same clowns write “Adams needed someone to sit him down and explain that he actually wasn’t the musical messiah we’d all been waiting for.” Gee, wherever did he get that idea? At least none of them mentioned actresses…

      By the way, I think the album is good but  not the mind-blower some fans may have hoped for. I’m a tad disappointed that it is not as rockin’ and jammy as their great live shows. But the sound, courtesy of Producer Tom Schick, is very warm and organic. (Number of times Schick is mentioned in the 19 reviews I read:  zero.) It’s a solid album that I can already feel growing on me…. And that’s all it needs to be. 

As always (if possible), don’t buy Cardinology at BestBuy or Target. Support your local independent record store (while it still exists) and buy Cardinology from them.

NOTE: The reviews discussed in this post came from: Wall Street Journal, New Music Express, Stereogum, Rolling Stone, Paste,,,,, (Ireland), Entertainment Weekly, Courier-Journal (Louisville),,, The Observer (UK), and student newspaper websites from Penn State, University of Maryland and even University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.


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