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Ryan Adams’s “Romeo & Juliet” Reviewed

Romeo & Juliet
Romeo & Juliet

Ryan Adams must be the most prolific artist we currently have: barely a month ago, he dropped the third album of a trilogy, and he has just released a new double album, “Romeo & Juliet.” The new project is digitally available via his label PAXAM for about three weeks before getting a widespread release on streaming services. This will happen just in time for Adams’s return to live shows on the East Coast in mid-May, after a long absence from the stage.

So, what’s going on? Is Ryan clearing out the vaults? It seems there’s a bit of this as the album sometimes sounds like an amalgam of recordings from different sessions done throughout the years, with different levels of production. I am certainly not a Ryan Adams specialist, but it’s not a secret that the song titled “In the Meadow” is supposedly from the final Cardinals album. It’s a beautiful and elaborated one, recorded with a full band, unfolding a memorable guitar work above a wobbling organ followed by an explosive orchestration jamming like a Grateful Dead song. Whether you are a hardcore fan or not, it’s impossible to ignore the triumphant tone of the song, which has all the trademarks of Adams’s more rootsy sound and shows a departure from the ‘80s-inspiration of “Big Colors.” But if it’s an older song, it makes complete sense.

“Doylestown Girl,” which was released in 2019 as a single since it was supposed to be included on “Big Colors” (but wasn’t), has this strummed Americana ballad vibe and a bittersweet heartbreaker for a story. The song received extremely positive press in January 2019, pre-scandal, but in 2022 Adams is fully aware he is now completely on his own: “No label. No manager. No distributor. No reviews. No press. No radio…… No problem.,” he posted at one point on his Instagram page.
“Romeo & Juliet is a summer album” he also wrote in a post on IG. “It’s maybe the first summertime album I’ve ever made, on purpose, front to back. It’s like the tall, long slightly mysterious sister to Easy Tiger. There’s a lot of room here and the stories all unwind like a long hot drive in the south with the windows down – sunshine blasting everything. And by the time the record ends it’s just early night – still blue notes in the dark purple patches of stars up the road hurling towards the hood of the car.”  

There’s still a bit of that Springsteen spirit throughout the album – like during the opener “Rollercoaster” – but the album is sonically varied and overall, it is a very dynamic album, and probably more passionate than his other recent ones. Even a track with rootsy guitars, like the bucolic “In the Blue of the Night” partially sung with a Neil Young falsetto, progresses with thunder and an interesting outlaw country riff. There’s a lot of creativity at every detour, there’s a lot of inventiveness in every song, whether you consider the bold catchy chorus of “I Can’t Remember,” or the titled track, a tragic acoustic ballad, or the wobbling keys of “Anything,” which almost delivers a retro Motown feel, or the pretty melancholic guitars of “Poor Connection,” or a few other acoustic songs such as the touching ode to Adams’s departed cat, “Theo is Dreaming.” “Something Missing” sounds unfinished or a bit odd to my ears – some may call it a demo – although it is an interesting departure from the rest, whereas “Run” reminds me of old (and beloved) Ryan Adams territory, with a chorus that everyone could sing at the top of their lungs.

Lyrically, besides the usual heartbreak songs, one of the themes of the album could be his beloved cat Theo, as three songs (“This is Your House,” “At Home With the Animals,” and “Theo Is Dreaming”) are feline-inspired tunes. Ryan Adams’s fans are probably still attached to the concept of a cohesive album, and they may struggle a bit to find it here. However, tracks count much more than albums today, and “Romeo & Juliet” is quite the collection of tracks!

I still haven’t had the chance to listen to it many times, but I would say I will probably prefer it to “Chris.” However, this is a very long album (19 songs plus 2 bonus tracks) and there’s certainly a lot to process at once. This represents a lot of hooky choruses, a lot of lyrics, a lot of variation in style and tone, but finally a lot of memorable songs, an impression I didn’t really have when listening to “Chris.” I don’t really care about the heterogeneous aspect of the album – I am also not a recording engineer, and I am sure a lot of inconsistencies in the production noted by some people have escaped me. Sure, many of these songs should originally have appeared on other records, sure some songs sound much more modest in production than others, but there’s still an overall tone. There is a bright force at the center of “Romeo & Juliet,” it is an album that reveals itself as a spirited and fierce one, exuding an impassioned young love (like its title), and reflecting the most ardent season that inspired it: summer.

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