Don’t poke the tiger

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      The notoriously pugnacious Ryan Adams kicks drugs and looks forward.

      The first time Ryan Adams ever played in Vancouver, he managed to start a fight. It was 1998, the band was Whiskeytown, and Adams was cheerfully goofing around with the lyrics to Neil Young’s “Helpless” when a couple of red-faced morons in the audience—perceiving a grave affront to a Canadian legend—more or less managed to run the band off the stage and everybody else out of the club.

      Even if this incident wasn’t exactly his fault, it still demonstrates the immutable laws that, evidently, govern Ryan Adams and shit happening.

      “Well, you know, I’ve noticed that same thing myself,” Adams says with a soft sigh, during a brief and slightly chilly conversation with the Straight from a tour stop in Germantown, Tennessee. “Sometimes it’s amusing and sometimes it’s terrifying, but it’s always real, I guess.”

      Amusing, terrifying, and real might describe Adams’s last concert at the Commodore, in 2005. Some fans were dismayed when their hero appeared to suffer some kind of on-stage breakdown: slumped over the piano like a corpse one minute, swinging from the chandeliers the next, and barking profanities in between. The rest of the tour was subsequently cancelled due to “illness”, according to a statement at the time, but Adams insists that events were “misconstrued”.

      “Actually, I was at that show,” Adams reminds me, “and what was going on was, in my opinion, being taken literally when, in fact, we were being very funny. I remember conversations I had about that show where I was, like, ”˜How could anybody have missed that we were being facetious?’ But it doesn’t always translate. I didn’t lose sleep over it.”

      Since then, Adams has regrouped yet again in a career packed with incident. When he went solo in 2000 with Heartbreaker, he was viewed as an alt-country prodigy who shared a birthday with Gram Parsons and was born a year after the cosmic cowboy’s death. Gold (2001) saw him aping the Band, the Stones, Van Morrison, and early Elton John, as well as himself, and pushed Adams further into the light.

      A degree of celebrity followed in the form of Gap commercials, high-profile relationships with the likes of Beth Orton and Parker Posey (and a rumoured tryst with Lindsay Lohan), auspicious covers of his songs by Bono, Tim McGraw, and others, plus serial collaborations with folks as varied as Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, and Jesse Malin.

      But his critical status began deteriorating in the wake of Gold, with Adams’s stylistic promiscuity seen as a cover for emptiness and vanity. Pugnacious behaviour often pitted the media against the kinetic rocker and his runaway mouth, while the relationship with his label was equally fractious. Lost Highway simply didn’t seem capable of handling the man’s dizzying output, including three albums in 2005 alone and perverse genre exercises like the (unfairly vilified) 1980s pastiche, Rock N Roll.

      Throughout all this, Adams was—as his behaviour suggested—a little too enamoured with rock’s mythology, and last year he kicked the bottle, the pills, and the speedballs before recording his new (and final) album for Lost Highway, Easy Tiger. It’s his best-received effort since Heartbreaker, making for something of a Hollywood ending to the mad years that preceded it.

      “Maybe without the Hollywood, sure,” Adams says with a snort, adding that Easy Tiger, “for me, doesn’t feel like a wrapping-up of anything, so much as it’s a next step”.

      He also minimizes the significance of his new lifestyle. “I was always sober when I worked in the past,” Adams asserts. “Just because I’ve been forthcoming about the fact that in my private life I decided to not drink and not take drugs, it in no way sums up the last 10 years of my life. A lot of very extreme, very important work was done, and it would have been impossible to do that stuff had I been completely active [in drugs] the entire time.”

      Be that as it may, Easy Tiger is as mature an album as he’s ever made. Staked largely around the gentle, country-rock territory of numbers like “Rip Off” and “Everybody Knows”, Adams achieves warmth and vulnerability where there were once cockiness and self-satisfaction. Things might inch a little close to soft-rock territory for some, as in the single “Two”, but, ultimately, it’s what Adams is particularly good at. And where Easy Tiger gets a little noisier, his current band, the Cardinals, provides perfectly judged support, like the avalanche of drums and Rickenbacker jangle that matches a mouthful of run-on lyrics in “Goodnight Rose”.

      Adams drops the faintly contrary tone when he talks about his band, pinning much of the album’s success on the “democratic nature of the people I’m working with”, and adding: “I’m happy that they’re happy, and I’m happy that I’m happy. But as always, I’m just ready to get on with the work. There’s a lot to be done in life.”

      Given how much Adams has already packed into his 32 years—and anyone who doubts his staggering creativity should check out the 18 albums’ worth of brilliant, hilarious, throwaway nonsense available on his Web site—the mind reels at what “a lot” could possibly still mean.

      Ryan Adams plays the Commodore on Sunday (July 29).