As if attempting to take a stab at reimagining your reported ‘favorite album of all time’ would not be intimidating enough, restless and prolific singer/songwriter Ryan Adams chose to indulge in the challenge while playing in God mode. Shortly after delving into the hounds of rust belt hell via his recent unsolicited interpretation of Bruce Springsteen’s marquee project Nebraska, the 48-year old poet and musician this time saw fit to up the storied and timeless ante by borrowing from his ‘favorite songwriter of all time and spirit animal’ Bob Dylan. Reinventing the Nobel Prize winner’s iconic fifteenth studio album Blood on the Tracks, Adams’s own version of the 10-track LP appeared as yet another free digital download on his PaxAm label on Christmas’s Eve—a festive offering of sorts.
In his defense, the former Whiskeytown founder self-exculpated the covers album release by pleading ‘sacrilege’ over the stint, yet rebutting how he would be ‘doing it anyway’, prefacing how ‘it’s important to stay on your toes, and frankly after this beautiful year of climbing this mountain again my body is broken but my mind is pacing the floors… so it’s time to get busy.’ Lest people forget, Blood on the Tracks was the seven-time Grammy Award nominee’s sixth studio project unveiled during the course of the 2022 calendar year (adding to Chris, Romeo & Juliet, FM, Devolver, and the aforementioned Nebraska), annihilating previous personal and industry records at once.
Taking Adams’s recent DIY, self-released, and up-for-it ethos into account, the musical heresy was bound to be naturally deconsecrated. A somewhat reduced—and contextually enforced—instrumental backline underscores his rendition of the folk rock pièce de résistance, while slyly walking a thin tightrope between homage and re-appropriation as far as the performance committed to tape is concerned. Most crucially, his PaxAm re-issue adds a whooping extra twenty minutes of runtime to Dylan’s more contained 52, accrued by virtue of more or less extensive instrumental codas tacked on to cuts such as “Simple Twist of Fate”, “You’re a Big Girl Now”, as well as project bookends “Shelter from the Storm” and “Buckets of Rain”.
While adding more than a third of previously inexistent material to a work of art universally considered flawless might sound like a non-starter to purists, such musical fat on this thing is easily cut, and never in the way of the essential message conveyance on this update. Lending the Ryan Adams treatment to such legendary and to a certain extent untouchable recordings also meant demystifying what for many—through little fault of their on, mind yo—is a fourth-wall relationship to these American classics. For Adams neither modernizes nor museum-ifies these vignettes. He just merely performs them. That’s a straight A for making the effort alone.
As recently argued within the context and realm of him gifting Nebraska to the world—another unattainable record if there ever was another one—the Jacksonville, NC-native is bound to his spurs of creativity much like a scissor to its two arms. Blood on the Tracks was apparently arranged, rehearsed, and recorded all whilst fighting post-tour blues this past December, following his most recent US fall/winter live leg. If one can pass us the analogy; nobody would bat an eye if your favorite <insert here> basketball player hit the court for a couple free throws the day after the big match—like it or not, much like any professional athlete of record would do in their line of sports, Ryan Adams poured his blood, sweat, and tears on these tracks.
In the same breath, even a cursory scan of some of the verses and stanzas echoing loud almost fifty years after they were initially written, could almost have one wonder whether they were just chucked down by latter-day Adams himself. Take the brilliant and malignant opening batch from “Idiot Wind”: “Someone’s got it in for me / They’re planting stories about in the press / Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out quick / But when they will I can only guess“—one can’t but picture the alt-country minstrel double checking his notes on whether it’s really a cover he’s recording. Elsewhere, the poignancy and earnestness with which they’re delivered make the following sets of words from the penultimate cut sound and read just like they originally came from Adams’ pen: Suddenly I turned around / And she was standing there / With silver bracelets on her wrists / And flowers in her hair / She walked up to me so gracefully / And took my crown of thorns / “Come in,” she said, “I’ll give ya / Shelter from the storm”.
Admittedly a tad too late, but here’s a fat disclaimer: much like with Springsteen’s Nebraska, on Blood on the Tracks liberties were taken. Verses were cut, song tempos were altered, solos and instrumental interludes were added and removed, cover arts were reimagined (see below). It notwithstanding, the creative process’s resin extrapolated from the source leaves us with a watertight opening quartet of tunes, making up what’s Adams’s most focused, original, and accessible portion on the whole project. By contrast, the midsection gets a little rougher around its edges, and frequently risks to trail off on a number already patience-demanding such as “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”, potentially causing some listeners to throw in the towel halfway through.
The two-pronged ending is worth sticking around for, though. Adams’s “Shelter from the Storm” becomes a sweet little groovy acoustic serenade with lots to write home about. From its soft and tender instrumentation, to the former Cardinal’s reassuring intonation and diction, the cut gently skids through its four minutes and change before giving way to an impromptu six-minute instrumental coda that, unlike some of the earlier ones on the record, ends up sticking its tasteful and gratifying landing in spite of a few lick blemishes here and there. The exploit pulls its curtains scored by the eleven-minute sonic odyssey of “Buckets of Rain”, a frizzy and buoyant outro that cues up another six-string fade out before morphing into a blistering cold droney outflow—a callous reminder that by staying true to his unrestrained self, Ryan Adams managed to do away with any musical apprehension for the salacious crime he committed.