Is it too late to convince Ryan Adams non-believers that he's as good as he says he is? After the surprise success of 2001's Gold, Adams seemed to be ascendant, on the way to realizing his vision of distilling the morose, doomed cool of Gram Parsons, Paul Westerberg, Morrissey, Jeff Buckley, and Kurt Cobain. But even Adams' staunchest fans acknowledged that there was something a little forced about Gold, especially in comparison to the bare earnestness of his solo debut, Heartbreaker, and the effortlessly gorgeous final Whiskeytown album, Pneumonia. Adams' subsequent 2002 demo collection Demolition was a bigger letdown, since it didn't include the best unreleased songs that bootleg collectors had long been using to make a case for the aloof country-rocker. And though underrated, 2003's dual releases—the atmospheric Britpop homage Love Is Hell and the '80s arena-rock homage Rock N Roll—couldn't shake their aura of desperation, as Adams seemed to be competing openly and opportunistically with the new rock bands grabbing all the headlines.
So Adams and his new backing band The Cardinals retrench a bit on Cold Roses, which returns to the relaxed, melancholy-but-mellow sound that made Adams a comer in the first place. Adams could probably knock out songs like Cold Roses' wispily beautiful "When You Will Come Back Home" in his sleep, but here, he's not exactly sleeping. Anyone who diligently excavates pop history spends time with the soft folk-rock and singer-songwriter records of the '70s, and wishes they were as consistently fluid and artful as their best songs. There may not be any "Fire And Rain," "Southern Cross," or "New Kid In Town" on Cold Roses, but the series of perverse rhythmic and vocal hitches on "Cherry Lane" are plenty pleasurable, as are the billowing electric-guitar duets over the bridges of "Magnolia Mountain" and "Mockingbird." From its song titles to its artwork, Cold Roses nods to The Grateful Dead, whose classic neo-Americana albums Workingman's Dead and American Beauty could find room for the quasi-mythical "Easy Plateau" and "Rosebud." But songs like the gorgeous "Meadowlake Street" and "How Do You Keep Love Alive" are pure Adams, with their subtle melodic shifts and dandelion fragility.
The 18-track, double-disc, 76-minute set dims toward the end, either because the last handful of songs isn't as good, or because it's just too much Adams. His lyrics aren't as varied as they could be either, as he repeats his "I'm too weak to lean on" loverboy shtick. And truth be told, the absence his arrogant-asshole persona is tangible, since his cockiness is often part of the point. But for a good long stretch, Cold Roses feels fantastic—as pretty and affecting as a slow sunset.