It isn't hard to find someone who likes Ryan Adams' music, but it's hard to find someone who likes all of Ryan Adams' music. Adams has a Robert Pollard-like instinct to release so much material that even his most devoted fans will question their completist instincts. But at least he's picked up the habit of compiling it thematically, letting listeners choose which flavor of Ryan Adams they like best. Last year saw the release of Cold Roses (Grateful Dead-influenced roots-rock Adams) and Jacksonville City Nights (classic country-influenced Adams). Adams closed out the year with 29, on which he drops his ace backup band The Cardinals and turns the spotlight on stripped-down singer-songwriter Ryan Adams.
It's the least affected of Adams' 2005 personas. And even though 29 is the weakest of his 2005 trilogy, it's also occasionally the most affecting. The title track opens the album with a bassline that recalls the Dead's "Truckin'," and the "what a long strange trip" lyric—filled with references and near-death experiences—drives the point home. As the linchpin of an album looking back across a decade of dangerous youth—Adams just turned 31—it's a bit too spot-on, but the best of the eight reflective tracks that follow redeem it.
Adams fills his quiet songs with tales of self-indulgence and regret that belie their peaceful melodies. "Strawberry Wine" waltzes along from the site of a San Francisco suicide to prison to a run-down hair salon and creates a woozy beauty from Adams' inability to make sense of it all. With references to dead babies, suspicious aldermen, and unrequited love, "Carolina Rain" plays like a Southern Gothic story with some key details left out, though the holes don't make it any less haunting. And when Adams gets weepy on "Starlite Diner," waiting for a lover who might never show and knowing it's his fault if he's left lonely, wading through some of the lesser moments worthwhile. His music takes some sifting, but the gold always glitters.