Ryan Adams has always convincingly played dress-up, whether portraying the blue-collar balladeer, the petulant if corrigible bad boy, or the corduroy-country star. Granted, his authority on “dime-store gin” and double-shifts at the factory can feel as inauthentic as the $200 bedhead, but the erratic quality of his work has always brought on bigger trouble: Among the schlockabilly and cheesecake rock of the three LPs he issued in 2005 (stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Pollard!), there might be a single record’s worth of keepers. Maybe.
Which is why the lived-in songs and careful presentation of Easy Tiger make for one of the strongest records of his second career as a solo artist. Here, Adams is neither singing in the rust-colored monochrome of his Whiskeytown pedagogy nor aping rock ‘n’ roll affectations to rebel against it. His sincere delivery of the traditional “Pearls on a String” acknowledges his strengths as, simply, an alt-country singer. When he confesses, “If I could, I’d fold myself away like a card table, a concertina, or a Murphy bed” on the supremely titled “Oh My God, Whatever, Etc.,” he proves his powers as a songwriter, playing the self-aware smart-ass and the sincere heartbreaker simultaneously–a double-shift he’s well acquainted with. Tiger‘s other slack-tempo winners, like the therapeutic “These Girls” and “Everybody Knows,” are beautifully ornamented by the Cardinals, who at last sound like an honest-to-goodness backing band.
Thus, the offenses are diminished when Adams stumbles, slinging a stinky shovel of heavy-handed haste on the big-riffing “Halloweenhead” (where he laments a “head full of tricks and treats”) and indulging burdensome puns on “The Sun Also Sets.” (Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Hemingway!) Even the melodramatic sob and showboating Springsteen harmonica riff on the album-closing “I Taught Myself How to Grow Old” isn’t bad, though it’d be more accurate with a slight revision: How about “I’m Teaching Myself How to Grow Up”?