Surely no one thought they would get away without a pernickety blow-by-blow review of a new Ryan Adams project in this part of Web-city, did they? Reporting a mere 48 hours after the Jacksonville, NC-native singer/songwriter delivered the third and final instalment as part of the promiscuous trilogy of studio albums he originally announced to the world in early 2019: Chris is an 18-track double LP epic that stands as the 47-year old alt country royalty’s musical tribute to his recently departed brother of the same name. Formally the sole chapter in the album series to have retained its original scheduling roll out slot—for 2020’s Wednesdays and last year’s Big Colors wounded up switching running orders compared to Adams’s initial plan—this latest collection of tracks comes at a sizeable full hour worth of raucous heartland rock material. It is hitherto exclusively available for windowed purchase via Adams’ PaxAm label website, awaiting a full public availability release on global digital platforms on 1st April (fool’s errands permitting, knowing the DRA character…).
Strikingly dour in both sentiment and sound, the double-disc project wireframes the artistic experience coasting through a sequencing of nine tracks on each side, while also throwing an unrelated, throwaway, and 1984-channeling nineteenth bonus track on top of the PaxAm digital edition, titled “Don’t Follow”. The creative direction across the sixty minutes of critical mass on here is significantly and directly indebted to the former Whiskeytown and The Cardinals honcho’s recording sessions that led to the release of his 2017 critically-acclaimed studio album masterpiece Prisoner. The analytical prism of fixating Prisoner as sonic and thematic cornerstone as a means to dissect Chris naturally thrusts a certain watery, washed-out, and reverb-soaked aesthetics into secretion—a combustion that, for better or worse, is noticeable in spades across these chorus-effect filtered tapes.
Yet on Chris, the inherent creative elixir exhuming from Adams’ pen and strings might be stretched back even further, as far as his spotless and immaculate self-titled triumph unveiled three years prior—a triple Grammy-nominated record that still charts as his most definitive and accomplished body of work for who writes. Concretely, a track like “Aching for More“, queued up at number six on Chris’s A-side, with its galloping strumming and nocturnal acoustic-to-electric guitar interplay as well as evident mixing session parallels, comes across as something that might have easily been written the same day as the self-titled standout “Am I Safe“. Well as it turns out, “Aching for More” was actually originally placed as the B-side for that project’s lead promotional single “Gimme Something Good“‘s physical issue, in anticipation to the full album release in September 2014.
The throwback timeline references to said specific creative juncture don’t end there, though. When listening to the tenderly sour sensibilities of track number two on Chris, “Still a Cage“, one can’t but notice melodic vocal inclinations in the song’s main verse stanzas recalling a record like the stern and austere “I Just Might“, tracklisted at number nine on the self-titled, and Adams’s Springsteenian worship to end (and precede) them all. Moreover, examining a different exploit such as the cloudy, hazy, hollow, and ethereal “Dive“, opening the more amiable and dejected B-side on Chris, affords one the chance to draw a not-so-veiled parallel to its sublime older sibling “Shadows“, a true pièce de résistance on Adams’s 2014 record and one that sounds like it programmed and configured the exact same pre-amp effects and filters to stoke something as vaporous as “Dive”.
Notwithstanding the songwriting and recording influences of the PaxAm label owner and poet’s leanings during the front-end of the last decade, the undisputed sonic roadmap sprouting a collection of tracks as dense and raw as those that make up Chris is without a doubt his Prisoner record. For God’s sake, “Say What You Said” at number seven rings just like it’s laundering pound-for-pound recycled melodies, rhythmic patterns, and verses from the sweet and tender Prisoner acoustic ballad “Tightrope“. Further case in point, the throttling and low-fidelity indie rock number “Lookout” on the record’s side B: the demo was literally offered as exclusive bonus track on the physical deluxe boxset End of the World edition accompanying the main œuvre that same year (alongside “The Cold“). And lest we forget, the sappy and sugary standalone non-album Valentine single “Baby I Love You“—dropped mere months away from the principal Prisoner event—saw the Chris-housed “Was I Wrong” being served as companion piece for its physical release (further circumstantial evidence surrounding its being given birth during the lengthy and sumptuous Prisoner writing sessions can be found here, sourced straight from the horse’s mouth).
In agreement with fellow Chris reviewers, labelling this record as the final instalment in a discographic trilogy comprising Wednesdays and Big Colors could be inaccurate at best, decoying at worst. Much rather, one would be better off thinking of Ryan Adams’ nineteenth studio effort as the culminating double LP-relicts result of a working trajectory started with his 2014 self-titled, and fully emancipated and realised with his essential Prisoner outing three years after. Archival and cataloguing reflections notwithstanding, this effort takes listeners through an overall spotty, dusty, and erratic listening journey across 18 emotionally raw and occasionally overbearing cuts. Some, like the aforementioned “Lookout”, still come across as rough studio drafts, some sound like they never hit the final mastering round desk (album opener “Take It Back“, in spite of its compositional poignancy and momentum, cues two seconds of silence before playing back), while others sound overproduced and EQ’d too loud in the mix (“Replaced” at number sixteen).
No harm no foul; grieving, mourning, and penitence are imperfect and unrefined processes by definition. Throw at it the captained vessel of Adams’ sentimentally vulnerable assembly of atoms, tasked to act as primary conduit of canvassed messaging, and you’ll end up with the confused and unhinged hodgepodge that is Chris. Ultimately, what remains most vividly and brightly, after repeated front-to-back replays of this brotherly dedication in art, are quintessential third act Ryan Adams numbers. When navigating the menagerie on this thing, resort to the morally viscous and emotionally syrupy “About Time” (interestingly enough, one of the vastest pre-release leakages as part of this ‘album cycle’); the heavenly enchantment of “Schizophrenic Babylon“, a ballad for untimely lost angels and one that, can you believe it, borrows indiscriminately from Prisoner’s gnarly “Haunted House“, as well as the indescribable spiritual lightness of the title track. Of course. RIP Chris Adams.
I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.
2022, PaxAm Recording