Creating a spirited, upbeat rock record that referenced the Stones, the Stooges and some of his favorite '80s and '90s alternative artists was the last thing on Ryan Adams' mind when he was in the studio nine months ago working on the follow-up to 2001's Gold.
At the time, he was wrestling with Love Is Hell, a tribute to misery and confusion that paralleled the alt-country/folk rock sorrow of his 2000 record, Heartbreaker. "I don't know that I was having a lot of fun or that I was a very fun person at the time," the singer said with a shrug. "The record I made was probably the most depressing and screwed up album I ever did, and after I finished it, I was exhausted and I just hung out at home and stayed in bed for a couple months."
When the lethargic Whiskeytown founder finally summoned the energy to leave the house, he started jamming with some friends and writing music for a couple of side projects. The songs he wrote sounded like a lot of punk, garage and alternative stuff he liked, and made no concessions to what was cool. It reminded him of why he started playing music in the first place.
"It was fun, and suddenly I didn't feel like a sad bastard anymore," he revealed. "I reached this point where I went, 'I have to stop beating myself up all the time about nothing.' So I just dropped all the expectations I had on myself and everybody else had of me, and I just said, 'F--- it, I don't care,' and I'm so much happier now."
Adams' elevated mood fueled songs that were playful and upbeat, and just for fun, he hooked up with his drinking buddy and drummer Johnny T. and Patti Smith Group bassist Tony Shanahan to record some of them. Since he had no initial intentions to release the material, Adams paid for the studio time with a credit card.
"Eleven songs later, a splash of sobriety came around, and we were like, 'These don't suck,' " Adams recalled. "They're not the greatest things ever, but they're pretty fun, so we just kept doing it. It was like a hobby or something. If you're into tennis, you play every day just for fun. We'd just grab a couple drinks every day and go four-tracking. The next thing we knew, the record was done and we didn't even know what the hell we had done."
Maybe not, but Adams knew enough to submit the record, Rock N Roll, to his label, which immediately scrapped plans to promote Love Is Hell and instead focused on the more lively album. The company agreed to release the despairing material of Love Is Hell as well, but as two separate EPs — and it's not promoting either.
It's easy to see why. On Rock N Roll, a completely unselfconscious Adams boldly wears his influences on his pin-decorated jeans-jacket sleeve. "This is It" sounds like the Replacements at their prime. "Shallow" starts like Georgia Satellites, shifts into Hüsker Dü overdrive and peaks with an Oasis midsection. "1974" is a delicious medley of Stooges and the Stones. And the first single, "So Alive," sounds like the Smiths crossed with U2.
"I got tired of parading all my thoughts and feelings around for other people's amusement," Adams said. "I was like, 'I just wanted to do what I like.' So I wasn't trying to be cool and I wasn't trying to edit myself. I actually did the total opposite, I was like, 'F--- everybody. F--- every rock magazine, f--- every critic, f--- every fan and f--- you.' And now I can listen to Dokken without any sense of trying to be ironic."
Adams has a right to be annoyed at critics. Since he was a 19-year-old kid in Whiskeytown he was exalted as a songwriter extraordinaire and his words were heralded as the definitive voice of lovelorn youth. It was a lot of weight to carry, and it left Adams feeling unbalanced, self-important and pressured to keep meeting the public's expectations.
"I guess I've finally come to the realization that I'm never going to be Bob Dylan," he said. "I'm not going to be any of my idols, and whatever delusions I had of becoming that good are crap. I am just a decent sketch artist. My music can be fun, funny, and I enjoy playing it. So that's what I'm gonna do. I am now the plaque on the teeth of alt-country."