Anniversary Records: Ryan Adams & The Cardinals – ‘Cold Roses’
by Chad Jewett
Cold Roses is Ryan Adams’ finest album. Part of that is thanks to scope. The album runs eighteen songs and almost 80 minutes, and unlike the similarly lengthy but more scattershot Gold, Cold Roses is strikingly confident in its sense of direction. Part of it is the album’s thick, absorbing atmosphere: perhaps more than any other Adams release, Cold Roses holds a certain aura and sense of place that carries across the entire record. While Heartbreaker — Adams’ debut and the LP most often lauded as his best – will always hold a certain fascination, given its mix of boozy ennui, top-flight craft (“Come Pick Me Up” and “To Be Young” remain indelible), and late-night mood-lighting, Cold Roses feels like a world to be entered, ribboned with southern-gothic ivy, clouded in punk-Deadhead smoke, scuffed like the bleary romanticism of The Replacements and The Smiths. Heartbreaker plays like a night spent walking beneath a lonely moon. Cold Roses reveals itself like some college rock secret garden, mystical and bewitching where Heartbreaker is confessional and pocked with realist grit. You listen to Cold Roses and you imagine the wooly clump of vines that covers R.E.M.’s Murmur, except under all of that wilderness there are Husker Du posters and Gram Parsons LPs, ripped jeans and Thomas Wolfe novels.
A lot of the greatness of Cold Roses might simply be how many near-flawless songs the North Carolia-born singer-songwriter was able to pack into the album’s hour-and-twenty-minutes. Adams has long been legendary (or infamous) for his prolificacy, writing songs in compressed avalanches. There are nearly as many rumored Basement Tapes-esque lost masterpieces from Adams as there are bona fide releases. But Cold Roses, released a decade ago this week, seemed to find Adams in the middle of an especially fertile writing period, the kind of hot streak that allowed the then-thirty-year-old songwriter to pen a power-pop song as perfect and seductive as “Tonight”, then leave it off the album. Indeed, 2005 has become a mythic mini-era for Ryan Adams fans, wherein Adams announced that he would release three full-length LPs within the calendar year and in fact pulled it off, rounding out Cold Roses with Jacksonville City Nights (itself an excellent album) and 29 (a slightly more aimless end to the trilogy). Much of what makes Cold Roses a masterpiece has to do not only with how tangible and vividly drawn a world the album evokes, but also with the more pedestrian fact of just how much of a tear Ryan Adams was on.
If Heartbreaker outlines one strain of Adams’ self-mythology – that of an 80s hardcore lifer enchanted with outlaw country and confessional poetry – then Cold Roses filled in the space between those lines. The album constantly evokes Adams’ home state of North Carolina and, more broadly, the kind of alternative, artsy South claimed and liberated by bands and artists like The B-52s, Truman Capote, and, again, R.E.M. As traditional as much of the album’s country-rock heart is – The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Grateful Dead, Sweetheart of the Rodeo are all in there – it’s always haloed by Adams’ alt-rock instincts. Thus a song as languid and pastoral as the gorgeous album-opener “Magnolia Mountain” nevertheless has a crunch and bite that invokes Adams’ insider/outsider status. Its country music for youths with a complicated a relationship to “home,” roots music for southern art kids. The song’s syrupy lilt is all Gram Parsons and Emmy Lou Harris, but the toothy guitars that pock its edges are pure New Day Rising. One of the reasons that Cold Roses has matured into one of the greatest alt-country albums ever recorded is that it doesn’t just bind roots music to punk-rock; it metabolizes and understands the imagined South – especially its mythos and literary aesthetics — through punk rock.
Listen to Cold Roses long enough and it starts to spread out like a delta into mini-archetypes. There are the dense, slow-drip epics like “Magnolia Mountain”, “Cold Roses”, “Mockingbirdsing”, the overt Dead-worship of “Easy Plateau”, all stretched out and defined by atmosphere. Elsewhere you find humid, alluring slow-burners like “Now That You’re Gone”, “Rosebud” (the album’s only misfire, though it becomes workable if you imagine Adams writing it after watching Citizen Kane), and “Sweet Illusions”, the latter of which, in its smoky romance, supports the Chris Isaak comparisons that the album sometimes garnered. Or the surprisingly touching piano ballads: “How Do You Keep Alive”, “Friends”, “Life Is Beautiful” – all grand, weepy torch songs that tackle Big Ideas with grace and clarity. Rare are the moments before or since that Adams has captured heartbreak with a line as casually affecting as “How do you keep love alive / When it won’t?” or “This afternoon with you was something like a letter / The kind that someone writes but never sends / And when you’re good to me / It makes me blue cause someday it’s gonna end”.
Then there’s the college rock stomp-and-strum of “If I Am A Stranger”, the Smiths-via-Hank Williams home-cooking of “Cherry Lane” and especially “Beautiful Sorta”, a dryly witty sequel to “To Be Young” that literally quotes The New York Dolls (“You better believe me L-U-V”) as it sonically quotes Paul Westerberg and Big Star. Cold Roses feels cohesive to the degree that individual songs seem besides the point, yet “Beautiful Sorta” nevertheless highlights just how fundamentally crafty Ryan Adams is in shaping hooks, bending and shoving the title phrase so that a notion like “It’s beautiful sorta, but not” can be both triumphant and wryly defeatist — diffident sing-along magic. It’s an ideal hook for an artist as self-deprecating and funny as Adams, who spends the song’s three minutes shouting it with mounting, sudsy gusto. Cold Roses is a country album with punk-rock sensibilities, but “Beautiful Sorta” is the muggy air around some Carolina VFW hardcore show.
If “Beautiful Sorta” underlines Adams’ alacrity with power-pop, then “Dance All Night” — which boasts one of the songwriter’s three or four finest melodies – channels that energy into something even more efficiently bright. Effortlessly joyful, deeply affecting, “Dance All Night” is a radiant, bursting love song, powered by a hell of a harmonica riff from Adams (a gift he exploits far too seldom) and a silvery, muscular acoustic strum. The song has a graceful sense of balance, its rolling, bronzed shuffle sparked with shimmering piano, spare bits of guitar melody, and a feeling of open space that breaks the album’s general closeness. It’s a glowing interlude on an otherwise humidity-soaked LP, yet the song is truly convincing in all of its sunshine. If most of Cold Roses feels like it’s taking place just under the tangled mop of hair that Adams was sporting at the time, then “Dance All Night”, with its celebratory narrative of a young woman triumphant in love, is some of his best character work. There’s empathy and warmth in the song’s buoyance, the sense that we’re dealing with a real person and their real breakthrough – a kind of emotional naturalism that’s a thousand times harder to pull off than the more glum ruminations that surround “Dance All Night” (as entrancing as those ruminations are). The song is unabashed in its optimism, infectious as Adams makes a meal out lines like “She ain’t lonely now / She her shuffle across the floor / Yeah she’s happier now / See her smile and say “Come on!””.
It’s also important to remember that Cold Roses is the product of a band — one of several LPs that Adams would release as “Ryan Adams & The Cardinals”. A lot of the album’s heft and subtle beauty is thanks to its cast of deft players. That image of an assembled dream-team, operating at their nimble best, defines the excellent “Let It Ride” (another example of Adams taking a threadbare phrase and turning it into something interesting), a sharp alt-country jaunt powered by Brad Pemberton’s locomotive snare, Cindy Cashdollar’s skylarking lap-steel, and guest star Rachel Yamagata’s brassy, punctuating piano. The song is a marvel, one of Adams’ absolute best, packing all of the witching hour mystery and Piedmont tall-tales of the album into a tight, energized three-and-a-half minutes. Here Adams gets as much southern imagery as he can into the song’s spare verses – “Moving like the fog on the Cumberland River”, “Tennessee’s the brother to my sister Carolina / Where they’re gonna bury me”, constantly buoyed by that rustling snare and that ringing slide guitar, a striking presence throughout Cold Roses, but a truly bewitching one here.
The bulk of Cold Roses has ebbed and flowed in and out of Adams’ live performances, especially as he’s turned to the stripped down folk and roots-rock of Ashes & Fire and last year’s very good Ryan Adams. But “Let It Ride” seems to always surface – perhaps because even Adams, who seems perpetually haunted by the perfection of the song he’s about to write, knows he got so close on that one. But the continuing presence of “Let It Ride” might also owe to the fact that it seems to distill all the complicated mythology, rhyming images, and misty, down-home nostalgia of Cold Roses down to a single, perfect gesture – something haunted, moving through a warm night.