When III/IV came out nearly a year ago, I started to write about it, but the the more I wrote, the more I began to rethink whether or not I should. The first time I heard Heartbreaker over a decade ago, I was enamored with the music of Ryan Adams, so much so that I told virtually everyone I knew to listen to him and I was pretty emphatic about it, maybe even relentless in my pursuit to convince people that they needed to pay attention to this guy. And at the time, my overzealousness was accepted by most because we all still thought Ryan Adams was human, but eventually, when we realized he was some kind of roboticon cyborg song machine turning out records at the same rate that assembly lines used to turn out Detroit Steel, most of those people who initially decided to take my advice grew indifferent, because, even though this makes no sense to me, his profligacy was a turn-off to people. How more music from an artist you like can be a bad thing I'm not quite sure, but I guess Ryan Adams' output was simply too much for people to keep up with. Apparently, people found it a bit overwhelming. Once this happened, my constant prattling on about the brilliance of Ryan Adams began to wear on my friends.
Don't mistake me, I don't think I'm so much a force in people's lives that my incessant ramblings actually negatively influenced people and polluted their minds against Ryan Adams, but it certainly wasn't helping him, and in my own little grass-roots type of way, that's what I was trying to do. So I stopped. Or more accurately, I started trying to convince myself that I was a non-partisan fan of Ryan Adams. I eventually took this stance with Easy Tiger, I did it with Cardinology, and for the most part, I did it with Orion, and for the last 298 days I've been doing that with III/IV, just doing my best to not really talk about them all that much.
I wanted people I knew to listen to it, but I didn't want it to seem like I was demanding that people listen to it, so I chose not to write about it. But now, I'm only 23 days away from owning Ashes & Fire, the first set of newly written and recorded songs from Ryan Adams in nearly 3 years (the album's release date is technically in 2 days, on October 11, but won't see a vinyl release until November 1, so I still have 3 weeks and 3 days), and I listened to a stream of the album earlier today via ashesandfire.com, and it's so good and so earnest, I'm sick of pretending to attempt to be non-biased when it comes to Ryan Adams because I'm not. Ryan Adams is quite possibly the best songwriter of my generation, and III/IV is about as good a record as he's ever recorded.
The title III/IV is in reference to the 2 lp set being the 3rd and 4th volumes of material recorded by The Cardinals. It was the first album Ryan Adams had ever recorded sober and it was recorded during the same sessions that yielded Easy Tiger, but unlike the first 2 volumes from the Cardinals, Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights and the session's sister album, III/IV is a Rock record in the truest, purest sense of the term.
Sure, there are a couple of folkish moments ("Typecast", "Death and Rats"), and a couple of goofball ones ("Star Wars", "Kill the Lights"). There are some Rock N' Roll cliché breakup songs (two of the strongest songs on the record, "Dear Candy", which sounds shockingly like a Rock version of Easy Tiger's first single "Two", and "Lucky and Blue", originally released as a stream on Adams' website in 2006 under the title "France"), and a few lighthearted moments too ("The Crystal Skull", "Gracie", "My Favorite Song", and one of Adams' most striking vocal performances ever, "Kisses Start Wars"), but what really makes III/IV so special is the "everything else" on the record. The majority of this double album is comprised of darkness, desperation, and self-deprecation; elements that have never truly been a part of Adams' repertoire. The album is essentially the work of a confused and terrified man, recently sober, reflecting on his days of indulgence and doing his best to atone for past indiscretions while trying to sort out who he his without his most treasured vices. The result is visceral, confessional, honest, and starkly beautiful.
"Breakdown Into the Resolve", "Ultraviolet Light", "Users", "Numbers", "Ice-Breaker", "Sewer at the Bottom of a Wishing Well", "P.S."; all songs about Adams' realization he's in danger, all songs about alcoholism, all songs about not liking yourself that much, and in some cases, not even really knowing yourself at all. But "No" is by far the most blatant and revealing of the record.
Something is wrong, something is wrong.
Something that was making me feel good is not,
Is not, is not, is not, is not.
And nobody understands, and it's all I've got.
These songs are rife with shame and self-loathing and fear, and that probably sounds uncomfortable because it is, but these songs are also so sincere that being uncomfortable is essential. In fact, it doesn't matter how you feel because ultimately you just blessed to be allowed to be able to peek behind the curtain and see the real man behind the music. That's pretty damn brave and it's jarringly refreshing.
But really, for me, III/VI is such a great record because it is one more glaring example of why Ryan Adams is probably the uncrowned king of contemporary pop music: he simply doesn't give a fuck. He does what he wants. He indulges every whim. Even though he has occasionally released a record that feels safe, he never tries to play it safe. He was a man only limited by his record company's confidence, and now that he's thrown of those shackles, the possibilities are limitless. If he wants to, he may release a series of Folk or Alt.-Country records that sound exactly like stuff he's put out before, but he also might record something that, not in a million years, we would ever imagine he or anyone else would record.
Ryan Adams isn't beholden to a stylistic precedence. He makes the album he wants to make, not the album might make him. He doesn't make albums he thinks he should record, he makes albums he wants to record. He's about personal intuition, not popular expectation. And in a day and age where artistic exploration has taken a backseat to commercial assumption, III/IV as an album and Ryan Adams as an artist is breath of about the freshest air we're going to breathe.