Imagine if Ryan Adams had left this mortal coil seven years ago, shortly after the release of his critically exalted solo debut, Heartbreaker. It's a safe bet he would now be canonized as a brilliant shooting star, shot from view far too soon. His four recordings to that date would be fetishized: one perfect solo offering and a trio of albums with his rough-and-tumble alt-country band, Whiskeytown.
But Adams didn't die.
On the contrary, he dove into music with all the messy ambition and headline-grabbing bravado of an artist who sees endless value in his output. He genre-surfed with a reckless petulance reflecting his Americana roots and youthful punk proclivities, traversing modern rock, classic country, shimmering pop and even one ridiculous stop in hip-hop territory (thankfully as a Web-only posting).
He made a semisuccessful bid for superstardom with 2001's Gold and went on to produce a series of uneven releases, from 2003's self-conscious Rock 'n' Roll to 2005's rudderless 29. Despite occasional flashes of insightful lyricism, the inconsistency of Adams' output shifted his status from "next big thing" to "car wreck in progress."
Adams' childish antics haven't helped matters, with an embarrassing array of incidents involving crank calls to critics and myopic onstage meltdowns — plus a predictable trail of drug-and-alcohol-abuse admissions. A legion of fans has been waiting for Adams to just pull it together and deliver a record that echoes the timeless charm of his debut.
Easy Tiger, Adams' latest release, is that graceful redemption. The disc is reminiscent of the romantic, slice-of-life sketches that lent Heartbreaker a sense of humility, but with a smooth finish that could reignite his chances at mainstream success. From the triumphant mission statement of "Good Night Rose" to the trembling benediction of "I Taught Myself How to Grow Old," Easy Tiger is a return to Adams' solid songwriting and a push forward for an artist who had seemingly lost his footing.
Not that Adams is admitting to a single misstep.
"I never had that much ego to begin with. I was just terrified and therefore put on a brave face to get through rough times," he says.
"The best thing to do when you're scared is to act like a dick, right?" he continues. "I felt like every year for me was my freshman year in the music business. If I wasn't able to be tough and act like I belonged, I would have been pushed out. I may have said or done things that seemed outrageous, but I've probably also done things other musicians wish they had done."
There is something admirable in Adams' dogged determination and in his admissions that perfection happens only with practice.
"For me, Love Is Hell and 29 were really about exercising my abilities to their greatest lengths," he says. "Musically and thematically, they happened because I was able to break form."
Perhaps all those creative detours and personal demons are just parts of the journey that someone with Adams' inexhaustible drive has to take. But the songwriter sounds no worse for the wear.
"I think I've been nothing but true to myself this entire time — I don't have any regrets," Adams says. "At every moment, I felt like a decision I was making would be looked at as ridiculous or difficult or I was being an asshole or whatever, but it's all led me to where I'm at. At least when I can't sleep, it's not about what I do for a living."