When it comes to Ryan Adams, contradictions appear to be the rule, not the exception. On the one hand, Pneumonia is the presumed final album from Whiskeytown, the band Adams has fronted since he was 20. On the other hand, Whiskeytown wasn’t much of a band at the time these tracks were cut; or, some might argue, ever.
The revolving door that started spinning after Whiskeytown signed to onetime Geffen Records imprint Outpost never stopped. Pneumonia was recorded after the tumultuous tour in support of Strangers Almanac, a campaign which found Adams and his sole constant musical companion, fiddler Caitlin Cary, shifting from one tenuous band lineup to another. With each spin of that door, perceptions of Adams floated forth, ranging from affected poseur and fuckup to misunderstood genius and budding songwriter for the ages. Could they all be accurate?
In hindsight, and with apologies to those musicians who contributed meaningfully to the band (most assuredly Cary and, on Pneumonia, Mike Daly), Whiskeytown might best be described as an incubator and an idea. For as much as Adams surely loves the notion of a “rawk” band (witness his recent SXSW set with the Pinkhearts), he progressively outgrew that framework with his bandmates. As for the idea, Adams has said he once believed Whiskeytown might be like the Eagles, with different singers and songwriters stepping forth, but no true leader. Then there’s his memorable quote about how Whiskeytown was expected to be “the alt-country Nirvana.”
As off-base as those descriptions turned out to be, they frame two key insights about the man and his band. First, that it took Adams time to acknowledge himself as the leader, the singer, the songwriter, something special. When Whiskeytown first surfaced, the most frequent comparison made to Adams was Gram Parsons. What rings truer is Bob Dylan, not so much in musical style as in artistic development.
Like Dylan in his early 20s, Adams appears to be the quickest of studies, absorbing and synthesizing musical styles and influences with a depth and speed so uncanny, so easy, that it has provoked (just as it did with Dylan early on) occasional charges of disingenuousness. As a singer, his improvement from Strangers Almanac to Pneumonia and his solo debut Heartbreaker is astonishing. On Pneumonia, he sings in four or five distinct voices.
Then there’s the prolific songwriting. Aside from his recorded work, dozens of Adams songs are floating out there as demos or live performances. And damn if nearly all of them aren’t good. Writers with that kind of output don’t come along often.
The Nirvana quote sums up succinctly that Whiskeytown could never escape expectations: From its label, from rock critics, from fans who wanted the band to be the next thing that mattered — Nirvana, the Replacements, the Burritos; take your pick. Pneumonia feels like the record where Adams let go of those expectations and went where his mood took him.
He’s drawn parallels between Pneumonia and both Sgt. Pepper and Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers. Provocative comparisons to be sure, especially when you consider Third/Sister Lovers is also an album recorded after a band had effectively imploded, and a work that grew in legend precisely for being a “lost masterpiece” until Rykodisc released it properly in 1992. Pneumonia picked up a bit of that same buzz last year as it sat in unreleased limbo. One suspects Adams appreciated that.
As for Pneumonia being “our Sgt. Pepper,” there’s a musical ambitiousness to the album that supports such an audacious suggestion. It is a masterfully assembled and brilliantly played collection of songs that jumps genres with gleeful confidence. Those who appreciate Whiskeytown more from the “ragged but right” perspective may squirm to hear Adams crooning over the orchestration, flamenco guitar and castanets of “Paper Moon”, or belting out the sunny-side-up pop of “Mirror Mirror”, which are just two of the album’s surprising and utterly enchanting performances. For the rest of us, however, it all sounds fresh and heartfelt.
The album opens with “Ballad Of Carol Lynn”, one of seven songs written with guitarist Mike Daly, and sets the stage for what’s to come with its muted horns, passionate vocal, and Adams’ piano and harmonica. “Don’t Wanna Know Why” offers the first of several lilting and lovely choruses (“Breathe in/Breathe out/Carry on/Carry out/Try to/Never say goodbye”), with fine vocals and fiddle from Cary, who co-wrote the tune with Adams and Daly.
With “Jacksonville Skyline” and later “My Hometown” (which is Springsteenesque in more than just its title), Adams settles into first-person storytelling mode and adult ruminations on place and home, the former filled with evocative childhood images (skinned knees and cap guns), the latter with hopes of salvation rediscovered and sung in one of those aforementioned distinct voices.
Another discrete vocal, somewhere between Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame and John Wesley Harding, appears for “Don’t Be Sad”, co-written with Daly and former Smashing Pumpkin James Iha and one of the album’s richest musical slices. Equally seductive and simple is “Crazy About You”, an unabashed profession of love that some Nashville lass could ride to the top of the country charts.
Credit producer and drummer Ethan Johns for giving each track its own sonic touch while still maintaining continuity. The album’s boldest experiments are also among its finest moments. The aforementioned “Paper Moon” (featuring orchestral arrangements by Johns’ father, legendary producer Glyn Johns), with its dreamy soundscape, is unlike anything Adams has done to date, and he pulls it off with aplomb. Same for the Nilsson-flavored “Mirror Mirror”, where his vocals and Cary’s shine in bouncy pop terrain. And then there’s “What The Devil Wanted”, a haunting piano signature with pops, clicks and bells punctuating the cloistered mood and unsettling vocal.
Elsewhere, the sparseness of “Under Your Breath” would fit neatly onto Heartbreaker; “Sit And Listen To The Rain” revisits the charging guitar chords that drove Strangers Almanac; “Easy Hearts” pairs more orchestral accents with sublime vocals from Adams and Cary; and “Bar Lights” bring the album to a poignant and satisfying close complete with spontaneous studio chatter bookending the gab that opened Heartbreaker. There’s nary a clunker in the bunch.
Some may feel Pneumonia lacks the emotional weight of Heartbreaker, but beneath all of these gorgeous performances, Ryan Adams just may be revealing himself. The last words he sings on Pneumonia (at the end of the album’s hidden track) are, “I’m not evil, I’m just scared.” I believe him. And even if he’s only fooling us, he’s doing one hell of a job.