Americana Idols

Illustration by Henry JansonPhoto: Courtesy of Mark Abrahams/Lost Highway [Adams] and Chris Strong/Nonesuch [Wilco]

Ryan Adams is just a couple of ticks past 30, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy is still shy of 40. But both have put a lot of mileage on their odometers. They started out kind of the same—playing loud, inebriated roots rock—then launched themselves on different tracks. Tweedy wanted to be an artist, and became the conscience of post-indie rock. Adams wanted to be a rock star, and wound up the clown.

Like all clowns, Adams had his appeal. Whereas Tweedy hoarded his talent and strangled himself with nerves, Adams let it fly. He bombarded us with songs—of wildly varying quality, yes, but many excellent ones. His cover of Oasis’s “Wonderwall” is so inspired that Noel Gallagher, who wrote the song, plays it that way at solo shows. Even Adams’s freak-outs, like going ape-shit when hecklers request Bryan Adams’s “Summer of ’69,” could be tolerated as the behavior of an impetuous young man trying to pull himself together. What do we want our rock stars to be, Boy Scouts?

Now we learn, in the category of not exactly hot, breaking news, that Adams was an insatiable drug addict. That does explain a few things. His new album, Easy Tiger, is allegedly the product of his new sobriety, which puts him and Tweedy back on the same path. After kicking his own addiction to painkillers and recovering from depression, Tweedy has released his sixth Wilco album. He says on the DVD that accompanies a “deluxe” version of the CD that it was “time to sit down and play some motherfucking songs.”

Rarely has the word motherfucking been used so imprecisely. Sky Blue Sky contains the wussiest songs of Tweedy’s career: seventies light rock with a spritz of jazz. The melodies seem to evaporate in midair, as if they lack the fuel to make it across a room. Tweedy, whose voice used to have the rasp of cigarettes and cheap motel rooms, now sounds almost as polished as Steve Winwood. Over repeated listening, the songs reveal their charms—the gorgeous last third of “Impossible Germany” is proof that not all guitar solos are merely acts of self-love—but the album’s overrehearsed uniformity has the faint whiff of Starbucks.

By contrast, Easy Tiger is goulash. Adams switches in and out of styles and voices, doing everything from simple country ditties to sweeping, cheeseball ballads that would have been perfect for The OC (too bad the show’s over, Ryan, hadn’t you heard?). Among his addictions is songwriting—he had thirteen complete albums of unreleased material streaming on his Website last year—and this is one he definitely hasn’t conquered. Writing so much, he can’t help but rip himself off. “Two,” the first single from Easy Tiger, is a slowed-down repurposing of “New York, New York,” the first single from 2001’s Gold. In fact, all but a couple of the songs on the new album would sound right at home on Gold. Which means that in six adventure-filled, world-touring years, he has gone exactly nowhere. Like The OC, Easy Tiger manages to be pleasurable without ever being interesting.

Wilco’s problem tends to be the other way around, as was expressed in a semi-famous op-ed piece that British novelist Nick Hornby wrote for the Times in 2004. As part of an argument that lamented the lack of “exhilaration and a sense of invincibility” in today’s rock music, Hornby knocked Wilco’s heralded album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, on which Tweedy stepped forward as an art-rocker. “The squeaks and bleeps scattered all over the lovely songs,” wrote Hornby, “sound less like experimentation, and more like a despairing audio suicide note.”

Hornby would probably like Easy Tiger, or at least endorse its uncomplicated approach. Tweedy, meanwhile, has dropped the squeaks and bleeps, if not his compulsion to sweat every last detail. There are worse things. At a minimum, Sky Blue Sky shows his restlessness as an artist, his need to keep moving—not always forward, but never merely standing still, and certainly not dipping into the back catalogue for an idea or two. These songs will sound better live, as the band sharpens up its edges, and when the next Wilco record comes out, maybe we’ll see more clearly where Tweedy is heading, and come to appreciate Sky Blue Sky as a stop along the way.

Easy Tiger
Ryan Adams. Lost Highway.

Sky Blue Sky
Wilco. Nonesuch Records.

Americana Idols