In the midst of a solo show in Seattle in mid-February, Ryan Adams tossed his set list and instead played half a dozen songs he’d written that day. Some were full-formed; others were half-baked. Between numbers, Adams teetered between emotional breakdown and displaying the self-confidence of a heart surgeon. I left that show feeling much the way I do about this release: Adams is capable of producing a classic album, but Gold, despite some moments which brush against brilliance, is not that high-water mark.
Of course with Adams — a work-in-progress if there ever were one — you take what you can get, and certainly there’s a lot here (sixteen songs clocking in at 70 minutes). Though this is only his second solo album post-Whiskeytown, there’s apparently a backlog of dozens of unreleased tracks. The songs seem to be coming out of him like some kind of religious fever, but therein lies the rub: Adams seems more interested in the process than the result. Like a spurned letter-writing college freshman, these are songs filled with hot emotion but lacking polish and perspective.
Which is not to say that you couldn’t fall in love with many individual parts of Gold. There’s more hooks here than at a retired pirate’s convention, and Adams’ gift for melody is so strong it’s almost scary. Four songs in particular jump out: “New York New York”, the opening track; “Sylvia Path”, a Leonard Cohen-esque ode on how he needs a better half; “Goodnight Hollywood Boulevard”, a late-night mourner (but then most of these are); and “When the Stars Go Blue”, an achingly beautiful lament that is the album’s the standout track. The song works because of Adams’ verve — he has the courage (and the voice) to falsetto the chorus.
But much of the rest of Gold only suggests Adams’ talent rather than delivers it. There are more musical styles explored here than on most Top-40 radio stations, and a pastiche does not a great record make. In a way, Adams is similar to Rufus Wainwright, another great young talent who can’t stay on one road or style. And whether you’re are trying to win the hearts of boys or girls, there’s one lesson not to forget: You don’t send them sixteen mixed bouquets when one red rose will do the trick.