Its best moments are when Johns puts Adams close to a microphone and lets his voice -- defiant yet chastened, like a seasoned punk rocker begging for quarters -- do the heavy lifting. Album-closer "I Love You but I Don't Know What to Say" feels like a statement of devotion to his wife, the actress and singer Mandy Moore, a vow to protect their L.A. home together -- and a sad prayer to his grandmother's death from stomach cancer -- where "the night is silent and we seem so far away."
But this stable musical home base seemed impossibly distant just a few years ago.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, October 12, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Ryan Adams: An article in the Oct. 9 Calendar section about Ryan Adams said the singer suffered from Meniere's disease, an inflammation of the inner ear for which there is no known treatment. There is no known cure for the ailment, but there are treatments that can often relieve the symptoms.
After first earning attention in the proto-alt-country band Whiskeytown, Adams vaulted into international fame with two solo albums of bourbon-sodden, bummed-out folk-rock -- 2000's "Heartbreaker" and 2001's "Gold" -- that cemented his promise as one of country-rock's finest new voices. He was sideswiped by fame, taking on celebrity girlfriends, a publicized drug habit and a reactionary rock album, 2003's "Rock N Roll," written as a middle finger to his label, Lost Highway, which claimed that he was getting morbid and needed an editor (2002's odds-and-sods album "Demolition" was compiled from several label-rejected album sessions).
He confounded critics with several jokey rap and heavy-metal mix tapes released online, which toyed with the press' assumptions that he was a humorless, "authentic" alt-country troubadour. "I'm into clairvoyance and UFOs and ghosts. I'm a huge dork," he said. (In 2010, he released a sprawling full-length sci-fi-metal album "Orion.")
But leading up to 2005's "Cold Roses," he assembled the Cardinals, a band of session aces that would carry him through five albums worth of material often inspired by the Grateful Dead's rustic explorations. He even jammed on-stage with Phil Lesh.
The band gave him his most consistent group of collaborators and won him back many critics and fans. But tensions rose within the Cardinals on tours, leading to the departure of Adams' close friend, bassist Catherine Popper in 2006. The band dissolved after a 2009 show in Atlanta on bad terms.
"I'd make a suggestion, and they'd say I was complaining," Adams said. "We started playing with in-ear monitors and it just wasn't the same. Our friendships were [ruined], and I realized I didn't have to do this. After that last show, I just exhaled."
After the breakup, Cardinals' drummer Brad Pemberton told the website Stereokill that "you can't fix the engine while the car is speeding down the road, ya' know? Everyone was a bit fried, so it was the right time to step back for a minute. I encouraged Ryan to go and get married, and have a life and find some peace."
Adams now tours alone, with just an acoustic guitar for two-hour sets from his deep catalog. Meanwhile, Adams wrapped up his deal with Lost Highway, which famously shelved (and bisected into EPs) the tracks that became his 2004 album "Love Is Hell" as too commercially difficult. The relationship remains a raw spot for him.
"I'd had such a long spell of negative press," he said, leaning deep into a rolling chair. "[The label] were spineless losers. They abandoned me when the press did."
In a statement to The Times, Luke Lewis, the chairman of UMG Nashville and Lost Highway, said, "Ryan was with us for almost 10 years, and after fulfilling his contractual obligations to the label he decided to move on. I have many fond memories of those years and will always think of Ryan as an amazing artist who I am happy and proud to have known and been associated with. We continue to wish him the best and look forward to hearing more of his great work."
Suddenly Adams was in the same position as when his career started. Adams writes songs at a rate unseen since the Brill Building (he cut three full-lengths, including a double-album, in 2005 alone). After years in New York, he moved to Los Angeles in late 2008. Quitting music was a kind of detox session for a creative setting that he felt left him physically and psychically ill.
He availed himself of Los Angeles' myriad alternative medicines -- including one therapy that will shock those who still mistakenly imagine him cracking a bottle of Maker's Mark, writing a couple of albums by breakfast and not seeing sunshine for a week -- hiking in L.A.'s mountain vistas.
"I did a lot of alternative therapies, acupuncture and hypnosis," Adams said. "I'd walk the trails up to Dante's Peak in Griffith Park. I quit smoking, started taking vitamin D. California healed me up."
It seemed to work for him, and the Meniere's subsided. But writing refused to come easily. Songs started and halted; others followed cliched paths. He wondered if his generous muse had finally changed the locks on him, and his streak of self-loathing renewed.