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Rain on him
Ryan Adamsís Love Is Hell Parts 1 & 2

Trying to keep up with the prodigious output of Ryan Adams is a foolís game. Heís writes songs the way other people leave voice mail. He wrote five albumsí worth of material just to come up with 2002ís mostly lackluster Demolition ó which in any case both Adams and his label insisted wasnít a proper follow-up to his mainstream breakthrough, Gold (2001). So it was perhaps inevitable that his latest "official" album, last yearís Rock N Roll, would be accompanied by a deluge of outtakes. And here it is: Love Is Hell Parts 1 & 2 (both on Lost Highway/Universal) a pair of EPs available individually on CD or together as a double-gatefold 10-inch vinyl disc. The Love Is Hell material, recorded with Smiths producer John Porter, was infamously rejected by Lost Highway. That prompted one of Adamsís now-predictable on-line screeds, in which he claimed the label found the album "too dark," and it inspired the late-night, back-to-the-basement approach that led to Rock N Roll.

For once, the label was right. If Rock N Roll turned out to be the album Adams has been threatening to make ever since he began covering the Strokes and baiting Jack White ó the one where the old-souled wonderboy escapes the alterna-country demi-monde and joins the scrappy underground rock party across the hall thatís been looking like so much more fun (itís his Some Girls) ó then Love Is Hell turns out to have been the kind of cold, bitter, wasted soft-rock disc that Adams is capable of writing in his sleep. All the trademarks of the old Ryan Adams are here: doomed romance and suicide-handbook self-pity, glowering reverb and soft-pedaled piano balladry. There was a time when he had this kind of mood music all to himself, but Love Is Hell comes at the end of a year in which Coldplay owned the ivories at twilight and the Stills helped turn Smiths/Cure homage into a cottage industry. Whatís more, its diffusions of despair occasionally drift into listless, second-string stylistic affectations. Part 1ís "Political Scientist" adds another hushed piano lullaby to his repertoire but probably wonít be replacing "Sylvia Plath" in his set list. And the title track, the lone power-pop entry on either disc, sums up his preĖRock N Roll lack of direction in a single line: "I could be serious but Iím just kidding around/I could be anything, nothing, whatever, oh well."

The good news is that everyone who was waiting for a return to the days in 2000 when Adamsís solo debut, Heartbreaker, served as the high-water mark for alterna-country will have a few more indelible tunes to savor. There are moments on Love Is Hell when Ryan Adams proves he can still do Ryan Adams better than anyone else: "The Shadowlands," from Part 1, and "English Girls Approximately," from Part 2, are further arguments that he can summon up ghost folk worthy of Springsteen and brittle spite worthy of Dylan. And Love Is Hell details a pair of love affairs: one with a girl, one with a city, both tempestuous. Those two narrative arcs dovetail nicely in a pair of songs ó the last one on Part 1, "Avalanche," and the first on Part 2, "My Blue Manhattan" ó that also bridge what had been emerging as Adamsís musical signatures, a hybrid of metropolitan Tin Pan Alley popcraft and rural folk song. Both "Avalanche" and "My Blue Manhattan" are impressive in their grasp of the dynamics of each form, but thereís a fine line between a genre exercise and a cliché. For one thing, thereís too much rain. The chance of precipitation on Love Is Hell averages out to about 40 percent, and after a while, these downpours begin to flood the metaphor. To paraphrase an old Magnetic Fields song: all the drugs in New York couldnít end his pain, and all the umbrellas in London couldnít stop this rain.

Still, thatís exactly the kind of weather youíd expect from Americaís leading Americana-ist when he happens to be a strident Anglophile. By Adamsís own somewhat disingenuous admission, Love Is Hell was to have been his Smiths album, though the song that best fit the bill, "Anybody Wanna Take Me Home," was the sole number from those sessions that was pillaged for Rock N Roll. None of the remaining Love Is Hell songs captures Morrisseyís trademark distillation of self-pity, self-mockery, and bratty insouciance quite as well, though on Part 2ís "City Rain, City Streets," Adamsís fey, jangly sophistication serves as an accurate musical knockoff of the Smiths circa The Queen Is Dead. His gently fingerpicked reworking of Oasisís "Wonderwall" slows the Britpop national anthem to an earthy, mysterious crawl; it comes out sounding like his own personal "Stairway to Heaven." And when it comes time to say goodbye to the city and the girl on Part 2ís closing "Chelsea Nights," you might hear a bit of Princeís "Purple Rain" in the way he sings "How longís it gonna be babe, before I get over you?" But the songís í60s Southern soul and the fire and snow and blood and rain falling in the streets are reminiscent more than anything of the Stones. English boys, approximately.

Issue Date: January 9 - 15, 2004
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