Most singer-songwriters would not open their acoustic performance at Carnegie Hall by dedicating the show to “the Death Star level of Star Wars Angry Birds.” Then again, Ryan Adams is not most singer-songwriters. Over the course of a 20-year career, the alternately wisecracking and deathly serious Adams has tackled a myriad of genres and lyrical preoccupations with prolific enthusiasm, juxtaposing quarter-life ennui, suicidal poets and roadside bars with country-rock, Britpop and heavy metal. He hasn’t exactly done himself any favors; his drug-addled and shamelessly irreverent nature has perplexed fans and critics alike while the sheer volume of his output has inevitably diluted his best material. In many ways, Live at Carnegie Hall, recorded over a two-night stint in November 2014, offers the perfect summation of Adams’ career at this juncture: starkly emotional, a little overgenerous and rewardingly rich with evidence of Adams’ undeniable songwriting gifts.

The album is stripped back and unadorned – just Adams, his American flag guitar and occasional diversions into piano and harmonica. The musical nakedness suits Adams’ catalog well. Without the heavy reverb and honky-tonk flourishes that characterized polarizing efforts like Love Is Hell and Gold, the focus falls purely on Adams, his songs and the emotions behind them. It’s the most affecting work that Adams has committed to tape in years. Bruised, career-bookending ballads as diverse and gorgeous as 2001’s “Sylvia Plath” and 2014’s “My Wrecking Ball” intermingle perfectly in their mutual misery. Rockers like “Gimme Something Good” and “English Girls Approximately” cast themselves in a new light as the volume decreases and the sentiment amplifies. Adams has always been profoundly skilled in crafting memorable melodies and tapping into the most impulsive of human desires. Live at Carnegie Hall finally gives Adams an appropriate showcase for those talents, divorced from whichever questionable genre pursuits he may have attempted over the years.

With his dazed demeanor and frayed jean jacket, Adams is hardly the picture of the stereotypical Carnegie Hall performer. He’s well aware of this fact, noting before the conclusion of the first show that he feels like “the scuff mark on a new pair of shoes.” That said, the recording quality is immaculate, and Adams’ catalog is ideally suited for the cavernous acoustics of New York’s famed concert hall. Every strum of the guitar strings and movement of the frets is crystal clear, bringing to life previously unheard nuances in Adams’ work – the climb and plummet of chords on “Why Do They Leave?,” the intricate piano harmonies on “The Rescue Blues,” every crack and strain of his country croon on “Come Pick Me Up.” Even as one man on an overwhelming stage, Adams imbues his performances with fearsome power, making tracks as intimate and broken as “Please Don’t Let Me Go” stirring enough to captivate an entire auditorium. Emerging from a string of fairly safe, MOR releases and a years-long battle with Meniere’s Disease, it’s refreshing to hear Adams sounding as restless as ever, his versatile, rugged voice undimmed by drug addiction and health problems.

If there is one criticism to be made of Live at Carnegie Hall, it would be that much like most of Adams’ discography, there is simply too much material here to be digested in a few listens. Adams is a cult figure; he jokes that he hasn’t seen his records at the top of the charts lately, so devoted fans will hang on his every word. But for the uninitiated, three and a half hours of moody acoustic confessionals may prove too daunting. While certainly a complete document of his two-night stint, the two shows unfold more as a steady processional of songs, rather than a parabolic concert experience with peaks and valleys of energy. His frequent digressions into black humor and self-deprecating ramblings between songs are important to his aesthetic, but they ultimately detract from the fluidity of the listening experience. Yet the truncated 10-track version of this collection is almost criminally brief, excluding many worthy and subtler numbers in favor of hit-parade tracks. Right down to his method of distribution, Adams is a love or hate experience – there is no middle ground.

New York City is the perfect backdrop for almost any kind of music. Hip-hop and R&B meld perfectly with the syncopated jostling of the morning commute. Sunrise runs and twilights on skyline rooftops provide the ideal platform for anthemic indie rock and soulful oldies. Adams seems to understand this concept far better than most – even as a Southern expat, he has always fundamentally been a New York singer-songwriter. His sensitive balladry, alternately mournful and exhilarating, contextualizes the neon overstimulation and lonely emotional canyons of this city like no other artist can. Even fourteen years after its MTV heyday, his love letter “New York, New York” beautifully captures the majesty of the city’s skyscrapers and the frightening intimacy of one individual dwelling amidst their shadows. Live at Carnegie Hall is a distillation of that essence, a greatest hits compilation of sorts that conveys all of the sadness, humor, and introspection that has characterized Adams’ career, all within the comfort of his original urban muse. This album may inspire depression, it may inspire elation, but regardless of the specific emotion, it will undoubtedly make you feel.

  • Ryan Adams: Prisoner

    Offers a note-perfect salve to those broken hearts facing yet another lonely night in the …
  • Revisit: Whiskeytown: Strangers Almanac

    Ryan Adams was Ryan Adams well before he was Ryan Adams. Ahead of the world knowing him as…
  • Ryan Adams: Ryan Adams

    [xrr rating=4.25/5]Maybe it’s a coincidence or maybe Ryan Adams is being deliberately meta…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Lake Street Dive: Side Pony

Lake Street Dive does many things well, even if none of it is particularly revolutionary. …