If you’re spending time on this website, music has an outsized importance in your life. We all have the artists who hit us the hardest, and for nearly two decades, Ryan Adams was one of those for me. His appearance on Letterman a few short weeks after 9-11 was maybe the first time it felt OK to feel OK again. I first saw him live with my wife. The second time was with the same person, by then my ex-wife – hey, we got along, and we both still loved his music. He was my first Red Rocks show after moving to Colorado. A couple of years later, his Red Rocks show was my last night out before starting cancer treatments. A few months after that, there was me, devouring his just-released Prisoner B-sides with a chemo IV dangling from my right arm. And there were two more Red Rocks shows after that, feeling better each time. In short, Adams’ Gold and Jason Isbell’s Southeastern are probably the two main reasons I’m here writing. But then, in February 2019, the New York Times piece happened. And my relationship with Ryan Adams’ music got a lot more complicated.
Before we can look at Ryan Adams’ new late-night release, Wednesdays, a caveat: if you don’t believe what the women said in the Times article, this is not the place for you. Likewise, in situations like this, the art can’t be separated from the artist. Americana, by its very nature, is not a “shut up and sing” type of music, so “shut up and write” won’t suffice, either. But let’s give the new album an honest listen.
The lead track, “I’m Sorry and I Love You,” full of piano and falsetto, is ostensibly a love song, but it seems to be an overarching (but non-specific) apology – the first line, in fact, is “I remember you before you hated me.” There are a number of acoustic cuts on the record, several sounding like they could be plopped into a “This Is Us” episode (which, of course, ain’t gonna happen. Ever). There’s an unevenness to the album, too. Many tracks seem to border on home demos, where others are full-band numbers – apparently, the album was culled largely from the three records that Adams was supposed to have released in 2019 before, well, you know.
There are a couple of genuinely good songs on Wednesdays. “Birmingham” is a piano-driven rocker. “Poison & Pain” finds Adams acknowledging at least some of his issues – “My demons got so bored of dreamin’/My demons, alcohol and freedom.” It’s a pretty tune, with an almost innocent trip back to a time when booze was his biggest problem. And “When You Cross Over” approaches greatness. It’s a goodbye to Ryan’s brother, Chris, who died in 2017 after a long-term illness. Adams clearly still struggles with his brother’s absence, wishing that “all your pain dissolves into light.” His prayer that Chris finds family on the other side – “I hope they’re waiting there for you” – is genuinely heartbreaking.
Perhaps an album dropped a couple weeks before Christmas isn’t the place to address what he’s accused of – and what he DID – but it still feels odd to have no acknowledgement from someone who’s written exhaustively of seemingly every emotion he’s ever experienced. Even if music alone might sway you back to Ryan Adams fandom, I don’t feel like this record is strong enough to do that. And if you need something more substantive than a few good tunes to start listening to Ryan Adams again, you won’t find it on Wednesdays.