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Album Review

Since dropping out of high school his sophomore year, the now 36-year-old Ryan Adams has packed in a pretty full music career. Best known for his prolific output, stylistic experiments and a hard-partying lifestyle that some say nearly killed him, the singer/songwriter has jumped back and forth between solo artist and frontman for groups such as Whiskeytown and The Cardinals.

In early 2009, Adams surprised everyone by announcing that he was taking a hiatus from musicmaking and settling down with former teen pop star Mandy Moore. But married bliss didn't keep him away long. He released the metal concept album Orion earlier this year. And for his latest effort, a double-length release titled III/IV, he's back with The Cardinals.

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Pro-social Content

Most of these 21 tracks are about broken or failed relationships and personal struggles. A few include positive reflections. Adams focuses on a loved one on "Gracie," for example, singing, "It's a beautiful world knowing you're in it." Then he adds, "You've gotta make the best of the time God has given you." He also longs for someone who will love him unconditionally on "Star Wars." And he apologizes for letting somebody down on "P.S."

A guy who has struggled with addictions comes clean on "Happy Birthday." Adams sings about breaking out of bad patterns on "No," while "Users" finds him trying to shake the "shadows that were following me around" getting "used to being happy." On the jarringly titled "Sewers at the Bottom of the Wishing Well," Adams sings about the inevitable messiness of life: "My heart isn't black," he insists. "It's just dirty from the floor."

Objectionable Content

A generally hopeless mood permeates the balance of this collection. Crumbling relationships and emotionally bruising experiences are the norm ("Dear Candy," "Wasteland," "Kisses Start Wars," "Typecast"). And some deliver significantly worse messages:

On "The Crystal Skull," Adams tells of his girlfriend's destructively rowdy habits. "And Scarlet gets bombed/Scarlet gets high," he says. "Scarlet gets loud/Scarlet gets lost/And then the gloves come off." Things get verbally abusive at times as well. On "Stop Playing With My Heart," we hear, "Step back and stop f‑‑‑ing around/Stop playing with my head." And the f-bombs and other scattered profanities don't end with that song. They pop into a handful of others too. "We're f‑‑‑ed, we're f‑‑‑ed/There's been an accident, somebody stole your face," reads the despairing "Numbers." "We're f‑‑‑ed, we're f‑‑‑ed/You were always something else, there's nothing to replace."

Trying to talk himself into feeling better after his girl leaves him for someone else, Adams narcissistically vows, "My world is gonna revolve/It's gonna keep spinning 'round me." That song, "Lovely and Blue," also takes God's name in vain.

Summary Advisory

In 2007 Ryan Adams & The Cardinals went into the studio for what was intended to be a two-week recording session. Six months later they had 60-some tracks in the can. Some ended up on Adams' Easy Tiger release. More show up here.

Even though Adams is generally classified as either an alt-country or indie rock artist, this double album contains everything from folk to a sort of '70s-esque country to power pop to flirtations with metal. But a whole lot of creative juice doesn't always equal a whole lot of listening pleasure. "Ryan Adams & The Cardinals' best strength can easily turn against them," wrote popmatters.com reviewer John Garratt. "They are sturdy and reliable like a hefty box … and sometimes just as exciting." And from a musical point of view, that pretty much sums things up.

From a content point of view, however, there's little here that could be accused of being "sturdy and reliable." Instead, with few exceptions, what we get is a 21-song salute to a reckless lifestyle shot through with loads of despair and profanity.

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December 14, 2010

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Bob Hoose

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