Love Is Hell, Pt. 1

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Album: Love Is Hell, Pt. 2
Label: Lost Highway
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Ryan Adams

Album: Love Is Hell, Pt. 1

Love Is Hell was intended to be Ryan Adams' first major work since 2001's Gold, but his label balked at the record's hushed homage to pretty Britpop. In something like a fit of pique, Adams bashed out Rock N Roll as a way of showing himself capable of whipping up music as grittily tuneful as the buzz bands of the moment, and Love Is Hell has subsequently been split into two EPs and released with minimal fanfare. Because Adams has a reputation for being kind of a haughty jerk, it's tempting to suspect his label was right to humble him. But really, Rock N Roll is the album that should have been stripped for B-side fodder, while Love Is Hell is infinitely more heartfelt and haunting. Employing former Smiths producer John Porter, Adams shoots for a sound that incorporates his country-rock roots while approaching a mood close to the softer moments of The Smiths' The Queen Is Dead ("I Know It's Over" and "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" being prime models). Adams' 2000 album Heartbreaker had some of the same ambitions, but Adams wasn't as skilled a mimic three years ago, which might be why Heartbreaker feels fleshier than the new recordings. Nevertheless, Love Is Hell gets where it intends to go, because instead of Rock N Roll's tossed-off muscle-flexing, Adams supplies actual songs. It's hard to tell at first how good this material is, which has always been Adams' problem: His melodies flow so easily and his arrangements are so basic that his songs can take half a dozen listens to bloom, if they ever do. But since Love Is Hell features some of Adams' best lyrics since his Whiskeytown days–full of urban decay, worldly romance, and frozen moments–it's easier to wait for the set's subtleties to float up. When they do, the little sonic nuances take on the quality of rich drama: the intricate picking and deep tremolo over the coda of "Afraid Not Scared," the twangy chime of the slightly more uptempo "This House Is Not For Sale," the arrhythmic lope of "Please Do Not Let Me Go," the delicate piano and string accents on the mysterious "Thank You Louise," and so forth. From the moment Adams burst onto the scene, fans, critics, and industry types have urged him to discipline himself and stop playing the unreliable, self-destructive rocker-clown. But what incentive does Adams have to comply, when some of the most focused, artful, and affecting work of his career gets greeted with a shrug? At this rate, Adams may soon become the misunderstood genius he already imagines himself to be.

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