Welcome to Anniversary Records, a column where we reflect on records that meant the world to us way back when, and what they mean to us now.
Anniversary Records: Ryan Adams & The Cardinals – Jacksonville City Nights
by Chad Jewett
Jacksonville City Nights, the second and nearly the best of Ryan Adams’ “29” trilogy, was almost called September. It’s an apt name for an album this autumnal, apt to swing between the indian summer warmth of the record’s classicist honky-tonk and the chill of its funereal ballads. If Cold Roses consistently feels like it’s billowing out from beneath dense summer flora, then Jacksonville City Nights is its equinox; indeed most of the album exudes the night, either in the affable cloudiness of dive bars or a more haunted version of the charming old farmhouses where so much of Cold Roses spends its time. By the end of the LP, with the stately, wounded “Don’t Fail Me Now”, you can hear a new creakiness in the Cardinals’ rough-hewn country-rock (this album marks the apex of their flexible, affecting sound), like floorboards groaning with cold. Jacksonville City Nights is full of ghosts who stayed out too long in the chill, and the ne’er-do-wells that keep them company.
The album begins with the lilting countrypolitan of “A Kiss Before I Go”, a western waltz split between silvery piano and Jon Graboff’s weepy pedal-steel. It’s the first of several Jacksonville songs that seem built around archetypes, less akin to the non-fiction confessionalism of Heartbreaker and Easy Tiger and more like the formalist genre exercises of Rock N Roll or Love Is Hell. The song is lovely, the first of several teary odes, and the southern-poetic detail work carries over from Cold Roses (“One shot, one beer, and a place where nobody cries”), but you can sense Adams challenging himself with an abstract stylistic test. This means accessing a specific, sophisticated version of mid-century country music, the sort of elegant, orchestral ballads that Patsy Cline and Glen Campbell were producing in the 1950s. Adams, ever the keen student, seems to understand the broadly-drawn emotions and sentiments of that particularly lush strand of country music, and several songs here – “A Kiss Before I Go”, “The End”, “Withering Heights” – are drawn along those roomy, embracing lines, never getting more specific than broken hearts and lost loves, mostly because they never have to.
Indeed, “The End” follows the same stately aura, but already we see Adams deconstructing this stuff around the edges, packing whimsical lines like “At the diner in the morning for a plate of eggs / The waitress tries to give me change, I say ‘Nah its cool. you just keep it’” and “I read up my news / I start thinking about her / And I wonder if anybody here besides me has got any decent secrets” into the song’s otherwise mannered waltz. The effect is truly special, lending “The End” an odd mix of déjà vu and uncanny realism, intersecting a straight-laced pre-rock approach to country music with a Dylan-esque avalanche of details and vivid real-life nouns. Adams balances two kinds of romance, one nostalgic, the other his own version of local color. One might even read the first half of Jacksonville City Nights as the process by which Ryan Adams starts to whittle a particularly stolid genre to fit his own wheelhouse. “Hard Way To Fall” resembles a Willie Nelson ballad (a cover of Nelson’s “You Were Always On My Mind” ended up as Jacksonville b-side), but pauses to notice the glimmer of rainy streets, the movement of a lover’s shoulders or the way she reads a magazine, and the pangs that accompany the memories, all precisely the kind of angles from which most of Adams’ best songs approach – oblique, pointillist, carefully-observed. By now the Cardinals’ grasp on the album’s central countrypolitan sound is flexible and easy, the song’s gorgeous chorus (elevated by a terrific harmony from Cather Popper) arriving like a melancholy exhale, free and expressive. Jacksonville City Nights, itself part of trilogy, begins with a triad of its own, swaying from the formalist focus of “A Kiss Before I Go” to the affecting, lithe flexibility of “Hard Way To Fall”.
From there the album branches out, a delta that flows into the southern-gothic ghost stories of “Dear John”, “Pa”, and “Silver Bullets”, to the honky-tonk comfort of “My Heart Is Broken”, to a revival of Cold Roses’ alt-country take on the Grateful Dead with “Trains” and “Peaceful Valley”. The album is built around it ballads, especially the funereal “Dear John”, a duet with Norah Jones that mourns its departed lover by carefully recording the spaces where they should be – “A nice bed to sleep on / And a chest of drawers, where I keep those jewels of yours”; “Ten years passed / And I ended up with a house full of cats / But most of them went missing / On that window you never fixed, the door you never latched”. Again, we see the real art of Adams approach to lost-love songs, his knack for illustrating absences and finding the very real sadness of the simple, everyday things that suddenly change meaning around those vacuums. Jones — whose hazy alto is a stunning match for Adams’ often-sharp tenor — lends the song its ghostliness, her harmonies settling around the song like fog.
“September”, the album’s centerpiece and its beating heart, is likely the saddest song in Adams’ catalogue, defying the rest of the album’s themes of past happiness long-faded by instead dramatizing a lover fading away in the present tense. Adams’ narrator looks on as his partner learns of her chronic illness, and once again, it’s the small gestures, as when Laura “Mimics a noose with the telephone cord” or explains her coming death by saying “I ain’t never gonna see the winter again” that devastate. If some of the balladry and sad-sack woes of the album’s first half feel theoretical, it only serves to sharpen the sinking feeling that permeates “September”. Jacksonville City Nights finds most of its emotional punch in refraction, not showing a partner leave but instead marking the spot where they used to be, but “September” offers its gutting scenes of loss (later, the narrator runs his fingers through the groove of Laura’s headstone) by somehow giving us its exact moment, in real time. It’s a quietly daring move on Adams’ part, nimbly balancing between understatement on the one hand (the song is barely one-hundred words long) and melodrama on other. Instead, “September” is a short, vivid song of real pathos.
There is a palpable darkness to Jacksonville City Nights, not just in its sorrowful mood, but in its insistence on nighttime scenes. It’s a record that seems to perpetually unfold between sunset and last call, in the torch-song gloom of closer “Don’t Fail Me Now” and the hushed, despairing “Silver Bullets” (“Cause I can’t see the sun / But I know it’s gone away / And I can’t make you love me / And you can’t make me stay”). Yet the album’s most compelling song, and certainly its most winning, also scans as one of Adams’ most optimistic. Weaving rural-proletarian defiance with a grandly romantic sentiment of love-conquers-all, “The Hardest Part” finds Ryan Adams channeling Springsteen-esque hard-won optimism (“I worked hard for every little bit I got / And the things I got are gonna stay”, “And that ain’t the hardest part / The hardest part is loving somebody that cares for you so much”), all set to the Cardinal’s roiling country-pop, a steady locomotive roll. It’s a charming song, convincing in its rugged, determined reading of romance and commitment. Everything you need to know about the song’s earnest is there in the song’s grand climax, as a whipped-up Adams distorts the mic while shouting “Talking ‘bout a TRUE LOVE!”, a moment pointedly left on the record and indicative of a sincerity that cuts through the album’s yen for conceptual, even bookish approaches to country music.
Ryan Adams has more than his share of underrated albums: Love Is Hell, 29, even Rock N Roll have all aged well, and all contain marvels of striking, efficient songwriting. But Jacksonville City Nights, which finds Adams expertly balancing his ear for genre conventions with many of his finest lyrics, and which finds his band offering a moving, responsive take on that material (the shimmering, golden “Withering Heights”, for instance, is a wonder to behold, all nimble harmonies and weaving piano and keening slide-guitar) is likely his hidden masterpiece. No album of his feels quite this comprehensive, this finely balanced between myth and melancholy, between the sorrow and the splendor of the nighttime.