It’s mid-September and ex-Whiskeytowner Ryan Adams’ second solo release, Gold, isn’t even out yet. However, on various music listservs, disagreements continue to flare over whether the radio-aimed, less than startlingly original album represents either a misstep or a step up to the Big Time or, somehow, both. In simplest terms, some folks dig Gold, and a slightly larger group (or more vocal, anyway) thinks it bites. Either way, Adams will still be doing lunch with Elton John next week and could surprise everybody with an album of Chicago blues in six months. So why debate?
Because this isn’t religion or politics; this is something that matters: music. And Adams is widely recognized as a talent promising enough to keep discussions heated. First some givens: Gold isn’t Faithless Street, the near-worshipped full-length Whiskeytown debut that was the sound of punk rockers discovering a stack of Gram Parsons and Merle Haggard records. Jump ahead five years, and Gold also isn’t Heartbreaker, Adams’ Dylan-influenced debut from last year that used stark musical arrangements to pick at fresh wounds. Musically and lyrically, Gold isn’t as raw, courageous, or compelling as either of those. The perceived abundance of borrowed ideas and warmed-over guitar licks is one of the meatiest bones of contention on the lists.
But the bottom line is that Gold is an immensely listenable album, a description that’s not intended to damn with faint praise. Leading off is “New York, New York,” a musical second cousin to Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” and a no-brainer for his upcoming Late Night with David Letterman appearance. On the folk-rocking “Firecracker,” Adams blows his harmonica with the enthusiasm of a kid blessed with a toy trumpet on Christmas morning. “Answering Bell” is informed by revered ancients The Band and Van Morrison, while Adams’ confident vocals share the spotlight with a warm, recurring guitar riff–part Wes Montgomery, part Ennio Morricone–on “La Cienega Just Smiled.” All of that precedes the backing gospel choir that kicks in on “The Rescue Blues,” and it’s before Adams pins your heart to the wall with the “there ain’t no way I’ll ever stop from loving you now” chorus of “Somehow, Someday.”
It’s also just before the need for an editor becomes apparent. A good start would be to cut “Nobody Girl” in half, transforming it into a bargain at four minutes and 45 seconds. Then goodbye, toothless “Enemy Fire.” And later on, dull “Wild Flowers,” with a few others to follow. Trimming Gold down to 12 songs from 16 would tighten things up considerably.
So yeah, those hell-bent on getting the masterpiece they expect from Adams will have to wait for his next album or the one after that. Or maybe the one after that. In the meantime, I’ll be giving Gold plenty of spins.