Review Summary: Ryan Adams is not as crazy as he used to be.
Ryan Adams is not as crazy as he used to be; his alcohol, drug, and, shall we say temperament issues have dissipated over the years, and his newfound creativity has been in bloom ever since he released three albums in 2005. Two of those were with his new backing band, the Cardinals, and Cardinology is a fitting follow-up to those two exemplary slices of alt-country that was Adams’ bread-and-butter pre-fame. Adams has always been a spotty artist, turning out genius and following it, more often than not, with crap, but Cardinology affirms that the Cardinals not only complement Adams’ sound better than ever before, but also that Adams has finally locked into an artistic groove worthy of his considerable talents.
While Cardinology remains firmly grounded in the vaguely Grateful Dead-ish alt-country that Cold Roses did so well, it’s Adams’ powerful, understated songwriting and the Cardinals’ flawless playing that truly characterize the record. Adams is nothing if not versatile: “Evergreen” is a slow, shuffling country love song in the vein of 2005’s Jacksonville City Nights, while the atmospheric, U2-esque “Cobwebs” is romantic and touching without dipping into sap, a common Adams problem. Another slightly out-of-place highlight is the buzzing, vitriolic “Magick,” which is easily the most hard-rocking song on the disc and shines with Adams’ distinctive vocal snarls and some apocalyptic lyrics.
But for the most part Adams and the rest are content to let their sighing, relaxed brand of alt-country speak for themselves. Gone are Adams’ more wankish tendencies and his desire to branch into every genre possible, and his lyrics are more polished then ever. The graceful opener “Born Into A Light” is pedal-steel twang with some tasty licks that support rather than overwhelm, and “Fix It” has a strangely effective funk groove.
The delicate, haunting piano closer “Stop” is all the proof one needs to trust that Adams is more likely than not finally on top of his game as he decisively puts rehab behind him, singing “there is a darkness and there is a light / and there is a choice / for a balance to be made every night.” Cardinology without a doubt strikes that balance between musicianship and fantastic songs that Adams has found hard in the past. While it’s hard to tell whether Adams will continue his streak of solid songwriting, but it’s a sure bet that the combination of the newly sober troubadour and his ace band are the real deal when it comes to modern country-rock.