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Mercy Knows My Name

By John Murphy

Posted 11/21/08 at 1:17 AM

There’s a pseudo-myth in rock music that drug-abusing artists lose their edge when they clean up their act. Their music, once forged in the crucible of angst and addiction, is softened and sanitized by sobriety. It’s a popular theory, especially among would-be rock stars without a label contract but with a dealer contact. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, bad poets live the poetry they cannot write.

Ryan Adams (not to be confused with Bryan), was once an enfant terrible of rock music, better known for his offstage antics and his onstage breakdowns than for the prodigious talent that got him there. That he recorded at least one classic album (2000’s Heartbreaker, at age 25) now seems in spite of his drug use not because of it, as he followed with a prolific number of maddeningly uneven records. Meanwhile, Adams’ adolescent appetite for drugs, posturing, and self-mythologizing threatened to self-destruct a promising career.

Now, thank the Lord, he’s stone-cold sober and has cut a focused, effective record. The first song, ‘Born Into A Light,’ establishes the theme of regeneration and a return to innocence:

For everyone alone I wish you faith and hope
And all the strength to cope…
Be patient oh the past is just a memory and heal
Heal your vines and you’ll heal inside eventually

Though Adams’ personas shift with the sands of taste (folk singer, punk rocker, anthemic front man), his strengths and weaknesses remain the same. His strength is still effortless melody, as on the lovely “Evergreen” and “Natural Ghost,” his strained tenor and ear-worm melodies reminiscent of Canadian singer-songwriter, Ron Sexsmith. His weakness is still the occasional boneheaded lyric. “Sometimes I feel like the static in the attic is making me just confused” is a lyric that leaves me equally confused. But it’s a small quibble, when Adams sounds as energized and engaged with the material as he does here. As he sings on “Let Us Down Easy”:

In all my life, Mercy
Hasn’t known my name this well