The New Yorker
October 15, 2001
"Pure Pop for Now People"
Ryan Adams, still in his mid-twenties, has been handpicked by critics to lead the alternative-country revolution, and for good reason: in the last five years, he has released five records, four with the now-defunct outfit Whiskeytown and last year's solo debut "Heartbreaker." "Gold" (Lost Highway), the hot-on-the-heels followup, illustrates Adams's prolific talent: though the album already has sixteen songs, Adams has tacked another five compositions on a bonus disk. The moods here range far and wide from the jaunty, motormouthed opening track, "New York, New York" to the fragile "Harder Now That It's Over." While "Heartbreaker" was earthy and hushed, performed largely without drums and mostly with the hyperauthentic team of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, this time around Adams employs grizzled session pros like Benmont Tench and Jim Keltner. The result takes Adams even further from country music, into polished, precocious, sometimes prolix pop that isn't shy about its radio roots: echoes of the Band, the Rolling Stones, and even Cat Stevens drift through the album.
The year that Ryan Adams was born, Elton John was dominating the pop-music world with hits like "The Bitch Is Back" and "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." How odd, then, to find tucked away in the liner notes to John's new album, "Songs from the West Coast" (Universal), a child-is-father-to-the-man dedication: "Special thanks to Ryan Adams, who inspired me to do better." John has spent the last decade cranking out grandly sappy ballads and counting (or is that spending?) his millions; this record has been touted as a return to the sharper pop of his early years. And in some sense, it is: the opening song, "The Emperor's New Clothes," and the first single, "I Want Love," prove that the lifelong collaboration between John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin is still fertile. Even in the weaker moments-"American Triangle," a song about the gay-bias murder of Matthew Shepard, is as flat as a high school book report-John sounds revitalized.
If John was the king of seventies pop, the clown prince was Nick Lowe, who
combined impeccable melodies with an incorrigible sense of humor and managed to
turn out a series of nearly perfect singles, including "Cruel to Be Kind," "So
It Goes," and ("What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding." Over the
last decade, Lowe has refashioned himself as a torchy balladeer, first on 1994's
"The Impossible Bird" and then on 1998's "Dig My Mood." "The Convincer"
(Yep Roc) is his mellowist outing yet. With the exception of one light
rockabilly exercise, the songs rarely rise above a whisper, musically or
lyrically-the topic here is love among adults, sometimes resigned, sometimes
wry, sometimes warm. While Lowe's emotional sophistication is indisputable
(songs like "Lately I've Let Things Slide," "Bygones (Won't Go)," and "Let's
Stay In and Make Love" are every bit as wise as their titles), "The Convincer"
is, finally, a slight disappointment-not dim but muted, and without enough
flashes of wit.