Ryan Adams' drug problems and public tantrums have often overshadowed his music. But Cardinology may put an end to that. His first release in a year — notable for a guy who put out three (albeit spotty) full-lengths in 2005 — it's the record he has spent the past few years promising but never quite delivering. Drunk on melody, high on musical history, but all his own, the record throbs with great playing and singing, and thrums with hope without pimping easy platitudes. It's one of the best things he's ever done.
Cardinology is a classic-rock record to the bone, nodding to influences that Adams has conjured before but never so well: the country rock of the Grateful Dead and Gram Parsons, the arena anthems of U2. It begins with four killers in a row: "Born Into a Light" prays for faith amid troubles over a Tex-Mex melody, weepy pedal steel and gospel-tinged vocals; "Go Easy" is a breathless love pledge with heartland-rock hooks; "Fix It" is a plea for psychic repair that meshes a slithery R&B groove with a soaring Bono-style chorus; and "Magick" is pure mindless garage-rock pleasure, notwithstanding the geopolitical apocalypse lurking in its lyrics ("You're like a missile strike/Government goes underground/Warhead on legs/What goes around comes around"). Then things settle down a bit — but despite overcooked nautical metaphors on "Sink Ships," they never slack. Cardinology's riveting finale is "Stop," a fragile piano ballad sung in a shaky voice that slowly gains strength and takes flight. It's clearly about rehab, and while rehab rock may be a bit of an oxymoron, Adams — who has reportedly cleaned up — defines a genre here. If it helps undermine some of the bogus junkie myths about hard drugs and creativity, all the better.