Given that it’s now 6pm, the Kensington hotel’s 6.15pm yoga session is looking unlikely for Ryan Adams. With rehearsals for the first night of his UK tour tonight, he also breaks off the interview to call a friend about dinner. Doubtful that he’ll make their rendezvous, the singer apologises to his pal, and because this is hardly helping, I apologise to Adams. It’s ok, he says, thumping violently on a pack of 200 American cigarettes for a smoother burn, “I rattle on. Now, where were we?”
Well, we were trying to make sense of a year which – even by Adams’ standards – has been productive. It’s always impressive when artists manage to deliver a couple of great albums within months of each other – Elvis Costello managed it in 1986; Radiohead did it in nine months between 2000 and 2001. At the end of 2004 however, Ryan Adams declared that the next twelve months would see him deliver three separate albums: a sprawling, lachrymose double called Cold Roses, a dewy country-rock set called Jacksonville City Nights, and perhaps most alarmingly, 29 – a song-cycle loosely based on his own suicide. When an artist known for his mood-swings and compulsive-obsessive tendencies makes a promise like that, any excitement about the prospect of all this music is tempered by concern for their welfare.
After 29 slipped out almost unnoticed amid all the pre-Christmas releases by pop’s big hitters, it turned out that our concerns weren’t entirely unfounded. It didn’t matter which Adams you were most familiar with. Whether it was the puppyish provocateur adored by Elton John and associated with a string of actresses such as Winona Ryder, Parker Posey and Minnie Driver, or the bon-viveur poster boy of the Americana movement, the monochrome shadow-world inhabited by the characters on 29 seemed emblematic of a huge psychic comedown. “I’d always secretly thought that I’d just probably commit suicide before I was thirty,” explains Adams plainly. When I ask why, he momentarily shoots back a stare that suggests it should be obvious. “I was depressed. And I was, like, obsessed with… hurting myself.”
Cautious not to overdramatise such utterances, Adams adds that his self-destructive tendencies didn’t always announce themselves consciously. He says he was finally made aware of them following the well-documented accident at the end of his Liverpool show two years ago, when he fell of stage and snapped his arm at the wrist. “It was the final song of the encore,” he remembers, “I knew it was broken. It was just hanging off, but I finished the last four lines and got rushed off to the emergency room.” You suspect that any kind of recreation that doesn’t involve a guitar doesn’t come naturally to a restless soul like Adams. His habit of writing albums at a greater velocity than his record company has been willing to release them means that his section in the bootleg stalls of record fairs has come to rival giants like Bob Dylan. In the aftermath of the Liverpool accident though, he returned to his flat in New York’s West Village and bought a dog – “a simple thing,” he says, “…but one which helped save my life because it helped me to see myself from a different perspective. Enlisting for a course of Freudian psychoanalysis had a similar effect Ironically, for a singer whose pill-chomping exploits had become the stuff of legend, he says he chose psychoanalysis “because [a psychiatrist] would just prescribe you a bunch of mood stabilizers… Here though, you get to know why you’re reacting to things.”
Wasn’t he worried that seeing his subconscious laid out before him might stifle the creative process? He shrugs in a manner that suggests that hadn’t occurred to him before. Then, lest we imagine 29 were merely an album of depressing songs, he explains exactly how analysis helped bring these stories into the world. He talks about the protagonist in the exquisitely yearning Carolina Rain, who never got to tell the object of his affections how he loved her before his life ended. He talks about a dead friend whose letter to him inadvertently gave him the most affecting lines on the heartbreaking Strawberry Wine: “It’s getting winter/And if you want any flowers/You gotta get your seeds in.”
And he talks at some length about the driving roadhouse blues of the title track, on which lemming-words spill out to describe “a poor little kid in the lungs of New York/Just like the motherless son of a bitch/Loaded on ephedrine looking for downers and coke.” It’s a description that seems to tally with Adams’ mid-twenties, shortly after his old band Whiskeytown disbanded and he relocated to the American capital from North Carolina. “Well, it’s a literal song about drinking and doing heroin and doing coke and getting fucked up and fucking driving a car without a license,” he confirms, before rather sweetly feeling the need to add, “Not drunk though. I never drove drunk.”
The key though, he continues, is that all the characters in the songs are dead. According to the Freudian interpretation, all are manifestations of his own personality: “These are all their thoughts, seconds after a suicide… when your neural systems start shutting down… That’s why on the final song [Voices], the stories have dwindled and now it’s full participation in whatever comes next… [and] you get the actual interaction with Elijah and Gabriel.”
Adams says he only realised how completely he’d manages to “channel” the characters on the album, when he saw the goosebumps on the arm of producer Ethan Johns. Reaching thirty, he avers, has allowed him to lay his youth to rest and realise that “you [should] store moments of transcendental happiness and hold them close, so they can get you through when times are f***ed.” Some things haven’t changed however. He still likes a tipple on stage, he still swears like both Gallaghers put together and actresses still fancy him. That said, he won’t be drawn on rumours of a liaison with Lindsay Lohan. “I don’t know if I’m single at the moment,” he says with an air of finality.
If Adams has made the most extraordinary album of his life, many of the critical reactions accorded to it in his own country are – in their own way – no less extraordinary. Staring the very point in the face before somehow contriving to miss it, The All Music Guide concluded their review by declaring, “it’s the first time Adams has sounded completely worn out” – while Rolling Stone declared, “Someone get this man an editor.” Elsewhere in the US media, the emerging consensus seems to be that Adams is a stylistic fly-by-night, unsure of whether he wants to do dumb-ass rock’n’roll (Rock’N’Roll), Springsteen-esque anthems (post 9/11 hit New York, New York), traditional country music (Jacksonville City Nights) or Smiths-style “mope rock” (Love Is Hell). Surely, it’s not possible to run the whole gamut and mean it sincerely?
By way of illustration, he tells a story about the first three records he ever owned, aged 13. A friend of Adams’ older brother happened upon a discarded box of records from which the two siblings were welcome to choose. After Adams’ brother – a heavy metal fan – made his selections, the young Ryan made off with records by The Smiths as well as US punk combos Black Flag and The Dead Kennedys. “I remember skateboarding home on the way back, because as I did so, [The Smiths’] Hatful Of Hollow fell from its sleeve and the vinyl chipped on the opening tracks. So I never got to hear William It Was Really Nothing.” Laid bare in that anecdote, he says, is the key to it all – that, along with his parents’ vast collection of country music.
“[Critics] think I’m being disingenuous,” he continues, with no audible acrimony. “And I can understand why it’s confusing. Most people like things to be condensed and commodified, you know?” Perhaps the problem lies with his sheer output. When an artist seems to deliver solo albums as effortlessly as hens lay eggs, it’s inevitable that people might think they don’t mean as much to their creator as, say, Coldplay’s albums mean to them. Adams momentarily takes a break from singeing the tips of his arm hairs with his cigarette, and looks genuinely saddened. “That’s so crazy, because it means everything to me. I can’t stop myself.”
It just isn’t the modern way of doing things, I suggest. There’s less risk in selling one album by an established artist every three years – while they do their bit by tour the world playing those same songs over and over again. And that way, expectation is allowed to build up in anticipation of the next dozen-odd songs. Adams’ features scrunch up in a manner that suggests that I’ve accidentally uttered those words in Flemish. “But I really do just dick around with a guitar and come up with a bunch of songs! That’s just what I do! The intention isn’t bad.” He glances over at the clock. The bad news – he’s missed yoga and the chances of him making that dinner date are bleak. The good news is that he’s now free to dick around on his guitar for as long as he likes.