The people want to hear “Come Pick Me Up,” but Ryan Adams is no one-minute man. He’s a-make you love him, make you want him; he wants you to come prepared. At his marathon Irving Plaza show a few weeks back, demands for the ballad start up minutes after he straps on a guitar, but Adams holds fast—he bulldozes through the rest of his solo material with Springsteenian stamina, nearly empties a bottle of wine, cracks endless stoner jokes, apologizes to an unnamed New York Post reporter for missing his morning interview (“I was so fucking hung-over”), hits on a woman toward the front (“I like your glasses”), solicits reassurance and advice about the mop of hair he’s constantly finger-styling (tonight the coif resembles Tommy Stinson’s on the cover of Let It Be and therefore must answer to nobody), introduces spiritual guide Elton John out of the blue for a surreal but pandemonium-inducing rendition of “Rocket Man” (after which young Ryan is knighted with an embrace, like Axl and Eminem before him), and delivers a brief, sheepish encomium of his past and present hometown, New York City (he moved back just before 911). The natives, though charmed and appreciative, remain restless. “Come pick me up!” squeal two ladies in unison. (Related nonsong requests include “Take off your clothes!” and “Give me your body!”) Sometime before the house lights go up and the band skips back onstage unfazed for another encore, a clothed and chaste Adams finally delivers the song, and the sing-along crowd joins him in a collective barroom spirit of cheerful self-flagellation: “Come pick me up/Take me out/Fuck me up/Steal my records/ Screw all my friends/They’re all full of shit/ With a smile on your face/And then do it again/I wish you would.”
Adams’s songs tend to rely upon this kind of character: the wry, amiably depressive music geek who prefers pain to feeling nothing, would rather be lonely together than lonely alone, and can only feel deeper respect and longing for any girlfriend smart enough to drop him on his diffident ass. When he was in alt-country latecomers Whiskeytown, Adams’s existentialist inclinations (“Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight”) mixed with fatalism (“I was born in an abundance of perpetual sadness”) like tequila shots in a tall glass of beer. And alcohol, as Dr. Homer Simpson has also taught us, is the cause of—and solution to—all of life’s problems (cf. “Too Drunk to Dream” and “Dancing With the Women at the Bar,” respectively).
The subsequent solo records have mostly forgone soused rave-ups for tipsy, teary reflection, at the same time that Adams’s winsome-slacker persona has bumped up against his carefully cultivated media profile as an unabashed workaholic. Last year’s lovely Heartbreaker (home of “Come Pick Me Up”) was a bewildered, near diaristic account of the North Carolina native’s first stint in Gotham—two years spent falling in and out of love with a goddess most brazenly supplicated on track four, called “AMY.” On Gold, his block-lettered stealer of records and screwer of friends is “SYLVIA PLATH.”
The song, like much of the album, is slim, stricken, and endearingly ridiculous. Plath rhymes with “bath” (he would like her to give him one), plies him with gin, flicks her ash on the carpet, and soon shape-shifts into some elusive Splash fantasy. He’s a little bit country, she’s a little bit rock and roll. Ditto for the Adult Alternative-friendly Gold, which glistens like a mermaid’s tail—slick with studio musicians and soggy with moist power ballads. It opens with a sweet but disturbingly Hootielicious pair of I * NYC toe-tappers, both of which employ firecrackers as metaphors and one of which is called “Firecracker.” After that, but for the glammy twang of “Tina Toledo’s Street Walkin’ Blues,” song after song clings to similar loping tempos and quiet-verse/swooping-chorus structures, festooned with occasional prolix gospel inflections (including celestial female backup).
Having previously vacillated between Paul Westerberg’s cracked, cranky tremolo and Joe Henry’s wistful squawk, Adams takes up stubbornly agoraphobic residence in falsettoland on Gold. It’s the right note only for the record’s wounded heart, “Harder Now That It’s Over,” which marks the moment that the acute agony of a relationship’s implosion settles into the chronic ache of muddling through, “now that the cuffs are off.” Adams’s voice here is one of consolation and solace—both for himself and for the one he’s setting free.
The mood of sleepy, milky-eyed regret on Gold does produce a small share of crystalline alt-something moments (“When the Stars Go Blue” may or may not update Hum’s glorious mid-’90s Alternative Nation standby “Stars”), but Adams’s strengths, for now, double as weaknesses. He’s versatile, but every guise he took on at Irving looked like a form of drag, whether he was yawping like a cowboy, crooning like an emo waif, or testifying like Al Green. He’s one prolific 26-year-old, sure, but consistency is the hobgoblin of huge back catalogs. When Adams momentarily blanked out on the opening verse of “Firecracker,” he apologized by way of explanation: “I wrote too many damn songs this year.” But hey, you don’t have to put out an LP every time you’ve got enough of ’em! The people can wait.