The Study of a Transcendent Musical Experience

The Pop Culture Percolator

How much can change in three months? Your favorite Naples Daily News blogger began his junior year at the University of Florida, rushed a fraternity (I KNOW), and now often wakes up before 8:00 am. So the answer is: a lot can change. But some things remain constant. Most notably, my near-infinite love for the music of Ryan Adams and The Cardinals.

I’ve written about him multiple times before, so it seems only fair that I make my triumphant return to blogging with a review of the band’s latest album, Cardinology, released this Tuesday.

Before I began writing, I read as many reviews of the album as I could. This is contrary to how I usually do things, because I fear influences leaking into my own work. But other reviews confirmed what I already knew: positive or negative, they are all the same.

In any given article, Hypothetical Reviewer will call Adams “prolific,” mention his past drug and alcohol abuse, his temper, use the cringe-worthy genre term “alt-country,” and perhaps make a tired joke about confusing him with Bryan Adams.

This is not that article. This is not that article because this is an album that deserves more: a fresh perspective, an eager listener. Simply: a fan of music.

Granted, I was slightly spoiled: a week ago I was fortunate enough to see The Cardinals perform live in Atlanta. And even though Ryan’s voice gave out after a little over an hour (thirteen songs), it was still completely worth the twelve-hour round trip. I know that sounds crazy. But like I said: I’ve changed these last few months. And what I experienced between 8:40 and 9:45 pm elevated me to a higher plane of existence (one thing that hasn’t changed is my white-knuckled grip on hyperbole, but let’s move on).

I experienced the album’s opening song, “Born Into a Light,” as the concert’s opener, as a song that juxtaposes slamming riffs from Adams and fellow lead guitarist Neal Casal with surprisingly humble and mature lyrics: “For everyone alone I wish you faith and hope/And all the strength to cope/To be your own best friend, have confidence and keep the faith.”

I felt my own body vibrating along with the massive thump of Brad Pemberton’s drums during the intro of “Cobwebs,” which, along with “Go Easy” and the first single “Fix It,” is a soaring anthem rarely heard from the somber, introspective Adams.

Oddly enough, a dirty, stomping rock song like “Magick” does not feel out of place on the album, perhaps because Adams follows warlike images such as a “rain cloud, if it rained mushroom clouds” with an instantly catchy hook about turning the radio on, turning the radio up loud, and getting down. Absolutely I will.

There are, of course, those contemplative moments on the album, but none stands out more than the appropriately titled closing track, “Stop.” Adams’ voice starts, like the piano notes, slow and careful, but reaches a strong confidence as he sings of his defeating his own demons: “There is a line that must be walked/If you want to make it stop/Then stop.” It stands out not only as the only piano ballad on the album, but also because it’s not about fixing relationships or going down with a sinking ship; it’s about healing and being happy with yourself. This Ryan Adams is light years beyond the same Ryan Adams who wrote the self-explanatory “Drank Like a River” with former band Whiskeytown back in 1995.

Besides the lyrical strength of the album, I think what most makes this album shine is the production. Granted, experiencing Cardinology is not the same as seeing The Cardinals live, but it has come closer to capturing that feeling more than any other Adams or Cardinals album. It’s no longer about Ryan Adams and his backing band; as they introduced themselves in Atlanta, they are The Cardinals.

If Cardinology were a legitimate field of study, this album would be both a comprehensive guide and merely a starting point for further research. At this point I would make an awful pun about The Cardinals “taking flight” or “flying high” or “hitting a home run,” but like I said, I’ve changed.

Ryan Adams & The Cardinals’ Cardinology is released this Tuesday. They will be the musical guests on the Late Show with David Letterman on CBS this Wednesday, October 29th.

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