Ryan Adams Chris Channels Folk Rock Greatness
Ryan Adams is often lumped into the amorphous category of alt-country. That is, in part, because he was previous in bands that were much more obviously “country” and some of his solo output is fits the country, or at least folk country, mold well. His latest album, Chris, makes it pretty clear that Ryan Adams can also be a rock performer. He may be classified as alt-country, but he plays a combination of soft and hard rock that would be more at home on a Classic Rock station than a modern country one. Listening to Chris, raises comparisons with Bruce “the Boss” Springsteen, especially his 80s folk rock albums such as Tunnel of Love and Nebraska. When not channeling Springsteen, Adams sounds amazingly like Tom Petty, so much so that you might think he was playing outtakes from Petty’s earliest albums. While the Springsteen and Petty comparisons dominate the album, it’s also easy to hear The Waterboys as well. There is, of course, commonality between all three of these artists. All have somewhat slurred, gravelly vocals with heavy use of acoustic guitars and, especially in the 1980s, judicious use of synths for bridges. Adams employs all of these features in Chris to the point that he seems like he is intentionally trying to mimic this sound.
From the very first song “Take It Back”, Adams comes across as if he is Petty singing a Springsteen song. The jangly guitar and vocals sound like Petty, whereas the rhythms and song structure are reminiscent of 80s Springsteen when he was without without the E Street band. “Still a Cage” is even more Springsteen-like. The slightly slurred, gravelly vocals layer on top of acoustic guitars with synth bridges are incredibly similar to Springsteen’s songs on Tunnel of Love, that one wonders if it’s a tribute. The title track “Chris” is so like Springsteen that if you heard it on the radio without context, you could mistake it for a track on one of Springsteen’s more folk albums like Nebraska. It is, like Springsteen’s folk music, mostly just a voice and acoustic guitar with a few piano and synth flourishes to add emphasis. “I Got Lost”, “Say What You Said”, and “Dive” would be hard to distinguish from The Boss if you were not deeply familiar with his catalog. The opening bars of “About Time” could be mistaken for Springsteen’s “Tougher Than the Rest”. The sparse vocals along with understated guitar and drum beat building to a full rock sound are hallmarks of that song as well as much of Tunnel of Love album. Even the synth solo is pure Tunnel of Love.
The Petty sounds are also prevalent throughout Chris. “Replaced” and “So Helpless” might be Petty-lite but “Flicker in the Fade” could be an B-side from the “Damn the Torpedoes”. “It has that driving rhythm of an early Petty song. Even the phrasing on lyrics such as
“See a flicker in the fading light
See a flicker and it feels alright
See a flicker in the fading light
Now it’s gone”
are as about as Petty as one can get without being, well…, Tom Petty. Tom Petty’s earlier albums had stronger country and folk leanings than some later albums and this song fits perfectly in with those songs.
“Aching for More”, gets a more folk-country treatment that is unmistakably like The Waterboys groundbreaking album, Fisherman’s Blues. Even the compact phrasing, pushing long lines of prose into short musical bursts, is seen here. That’s a major Waterboys style element. “Lookout” is similar, taking the folk rock in the same direction as The Waterboys.
None of this is to say that the whole album is trying to mimic these great folk and country rock artists. “Crooked Shake”, for example, is a bit different. It is more of a traditional country song but with a soft rock backbone. It would have been at home during the Eagles era. The piano especially is very country rock. It would be at home even on a John Denver album. The album ending “Letting the Light In” has a more traditional country arrangement even while still sounding Springsteen-ish.
Chris makes me think that Ryan Adams was sitting in his house during the pandemic listening to folk-rock albums from the 70s and 80s and became inspired by them. I don’t know if that’s true but whatever his process, the results are great. This album will appeal to country, folk, and rock audiences but especially to fans of The Boss and Tom Petty. I can’t be sure if this is a one-off or a stylistic direction. Earlier hits such as “When the Stars Go Blue” are more definitively country songs. Whether new direction or experiment, Chris is a fine album to listen to.