10 years ago this month Ryan Adams released Rock N Roll, a creative left turn album that found Adams trading country songwriting for rock guitars. It was initially considered a commercial failure and, even worse, a bland disappointment for fans (though “So Alive” proved to be a decent radio hit). But 10 years later, Ryan Adams’s own classic-rock album has aged well enough for many fans, including myself, to revisit it and admit that, “ok, this is actually pretty good.”
Looking back on Adams’s career, it makes sense for him to record Rock N Roll. Adams was always more than just a Gram Parsons for a new generation. He had roots in metal and punk music, and his previous band Whiskeytown was considered alternative country simply because of Adams’s songwriting rooted in classic rock and punk. But in 2003, the world was expecting another Gold or Heartbreaker. His previous release Demolition, though now generally well received, was the first Ryan Adams record that wasn’t universally praised by critics and fans, and they all were hoping that Adams would get back in line and release another classic album. Unfortunately for them, Rock N Roll was the exact opposite of what they wanted, and the album got panned even more. But now, after 10 years, many people are coming back to this record with a new sense of love.
There is no country on this record, and the closest we get is the beautiful piano ballad that is the title track. Everything else on Rock N Roll is full of electric guitars and Adams spitting out the most straight forward rock lyrics he has ever written. The songs are sloppy and loose, which makes sense considering that the album was supposedly written and recorded in just two weeks.
Rock N Roll embodies both the good and bad effects of an artists in the early 2000s trying to recapture the classic-rock feel of 70s rock. Nearly ever song is about drug use or about people using drugs, or about using drugs to get over girls (that covers the whole Sex, Drugs, and Rock N Roll checklist). Even the song titles hint at where the inspirations are coming from (“1974”, “Wish You Were Here”, “Note To self: Don’t Die”, “The Drugs Not Working”). The hooks are undeniably catchy as hell, and Adams knows that he can write a blistering rock song in his sleep. The bad part is that sometimes it sounds like Adams is writing these songs in his sleep. Throughout the album, there seems to be a lack sincerity from an artist who became famous for writing one of the most sincere albums of the past decades, and an artist being insensitive to his fans is a hard pill for some to swallow.
But all the sloppiness and cockiness of Rock N Roll has evolved from annoying to charming. “Wish You Were Here” and “Burning Photographs” are some of Adams’s best songs, and “Rock N Roll” could have been on Heartbreaker. Rock N Roll, if recorded today in 2013, would sound like a more honest (and more fun) rock record, much more than it was in 2003. It’s not the best Ryan Adams record you’ll ever hear, but I’d be damn if you don’t find yourself turning up the volume on “So Alive” and “Do Miss America”.