For decades, country purists have been storming gates that seemed too high: trying to break into the Nashville music-making factory and return the genre to its rugged, uncluttered roots. They may never win, not if the likes of Shania Twain or Brooks & Dunn have anything to say about it. But between the success of the ”O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack and the newly unplugged leanings of everyone from Patty Loveless to the Dixie Chicks, the rebels can claim a few victories. And even in a world that suddenly favors less bombastic country, there are still plenty of ways to rub Nashville the wrong way, as next-generation dissident Ryan Adams is happy to demonstrate on his latest.
Then again, how much of a maverick is Adams, anyway? One song on Demolition is called ”Tennessee Sucks,” but before you think he’s about to savagely mock everything Garth, think again: ”…in the summer,” goes the rest of the sentence.
Adams is a true puzzle. His demeanor — the uncombed hair, the rock-star sulk, the leather and scarves, the hint of last night’s excess spilling over into the following morning — is the antithesis of Nashville music-star politeness and starch. But as ”Demolition” demonstrates, just like last year’s breakthrough ”Gold” did, that’s pretty much where the insurrection ends. Despite his attitude-heavy presentation, the Adams we hear on record has become increasingly conventional — and far less ”country” — since the breakup of his former band Whiskeytown. The fact that one of his songs, ”When the Stars Go Blue,” was covered recently — and quite beautifully — by Bono and the Corrs should have been a clue.
”Demolition,” culled from four in-the-works albums, is dominated by intentionally underproduced acoustic ballads (the title is a play on ”demo,” after all). Adams is very adept at this genre, as heard here on exceedingly pretty, delicate teardrops like ”Cry on Demand” and ”She Wants to Play Hearts” (”I guess I wanted to play too,” he admits in that trembling rasp of his).
But the songs are a slight bunch, and for all the reported heartache and pain that went into them (the death of Carol Burnett’s daughter Carrie Hamilton, whom he has called ”the love of my life”), they’re strangely uninvolving. (The few rockers here, meanwhile, find him verging closer to his almost-name-alike, Bryan Adams.) Sometimes you have to wonder if Adams’ dissolute image is partially his way of hiding a secret desire to be the Gordon Lightfoot of his generation. Only on the last track — a spooky twilight drone called ”Jesus (Don’t Touch My Baby)” that makes it sound as if Adams was cooped up with later-period U2 albums one semi-lost weekend — does he offer up the twist of old and new his wardrobe keeps promising.