"Rock N Roll" (Lost Highway) - 2003

Editor’s Note: Welcome to a new music feature, where we look at albums from the past and re-evaluate them. Enjoy.

If it weren’t so terrible, I’m not sure “Rock N Roll” would be such a great album. Which would be a strange thing to say if we were talking about anyone other than Ryan Adams.

That’s because the neat trick of his career has always been doing everything at once. His first solo album “Heartbreaker” juxtaposed tears-and-beers country with pop rock, oscillating between the shambling joviality of “To Be Young” and the apocalyptic depression of “Come Pick Me Up.” His slipshod albums display brilliance in one song and careless laziness in the next.

Then there were the substance abuse problems. Adams says he’s been clean and sober since before entering the studio to make June’s “Easy Tiger” and the just-released “Follow the Lights” EP. But, for most of the oughts, drugs and alcohol meant that his shows would be either the best or the worst concert you’d seen in a long while.

All this has made Adams one of the most frustrating musicians around. Between 2003 and 2005 he recorded five purportedly-mediocre albums–and countless other unreleased tracks still confined to his vaults, which supposedly also contain a song-for-song cover of the Strokes’ “Is This It?”–that produced a lot of critical whining. And exhibit number one has traditionally been “Rock N Roll.”

Which is funny to me, because it still seems like part of the point of “Rock N Roll” was that it wasn’t meant to be great. It’s Adams’ heartbroken love note to a genre that his country-rock roots have kept him from completely embracing. The album’s devastatingly open about why he and the genre just can’t work it out: Adams cruelly points out its flaws, viciously satirizing a ton of rock music.

Just look at the track list. “This Is It,” “Wish You Were Here,” “She’s Lost Total Control”: if those song titles don’t sound strangely familiar, then you don’t listen to rock music. Parody’s the point.

And Adams does it ridiculously well, getting nearly everyone right. There’s the Edge-like guitar of “So Alive”; Adams underscores the joke by imitating Bono’s legato quaver. The “Wish You Were Here” intro harkens back to “Jessie’s Girl,” and “Burning Photographs” references the work of another famous Springsteen. Thin Lizzy quotes abound, and so do hooks. Plus the album’s mixed and mastered nearly as well as vintage AC/DC; it sounds loud at nearly every volume level.

Sure, a lot of “Rock N Roll” is shitty, but the same goes for the genre. Adams’ habit of simultaneously embracing volatile extremes leads him to write an incisive lyric in one verse and a terrible one the next. “Wish You Were Here” starts with the wonderfully evocative line “Cotton candy and a rotten mouth,” then devolves into boring rain imagery and whining: “It’s totally fucked up / I’m totally fucked up.” On the solid “Burning Photographs,” Adams finds another winner: “I used to be sad / Now I’m just bored with you.” But then there’s “Boys,” and Adams admits: “I’m as lonely as monkeys taught to destroy / Anything they learn to enjoy.” Yikes.

The mistakes and the emotional rawness make “Rock N Roll” a hard album to listen through in a single sitting. There’s a lot of self-indulgent relationship lamentation going on. But c’mon: Ryan was in a lot of pain. Who are we to judge? We’ve never dated Parker Posey.

People complain that Adams doesn’t focus himself, that if he would just take a break from being prolific he could actually harness his talents to make a great record. Which is a fallacy people have about A.D.D. musicians in general. Creating consistently good albums is just not something that post-1987 Prince, Robert Pollard, or Lil’ Wayne does. These artists are incapable of editing themselves, of any kind of self-restraint; it’s just a condition of their artistic temperament, and it’s something we, as listeners, have to accept.

“Rock N Roll” ultimately benefits from that quick-sketch approach and ends up being above par for Adams’ discography. It’s an incredible synthesis of nearly everything rock has produced (both good and bad) in the last 30 years. Adams tries so hard to be mediocre that “Rock N Roll” ends up amazing. Thank God it’s awful.

—Reviewer Jake G. Cohen can be reached at