Heaven knows why Ryan Adams decided to release three albums in the calendar year of 2005. He's always been prolific to a fault, boasting about completed unreleased albums when his latest work was just seeing the light of day, but he never saturated the market with new material the way he did in 2005, when it seemed he was trying to break Robert Pollard's record for most music released within a year. Grinding out three albums in a year is a marathon, not just for Adams but for any of his listeners, and by the time he got to the third album, 29, in the waning weeks of December, he seemed like a winded long-distance runner struggling to cross the finish line: completing the task was more important than doing it well. There's little question that 29 is the weakest of the three records Adams released in 2005, lacking not just the country-rock sprawl of Cold Roses but the targeted neo-classicist country that made Jacksonville City Nights so appealing. Which isn't to say that 29 doesn't have its own feel, since it certainly does. After opening with the title track's straight-up rewrite of the Grateful Dead's "Truckin'," it slides into a series of quiet, languid late-night confessionals that all barely register above a murmur. It's like Love Is Hell transported to a folk/country setting, then stripped not only of its sonic texture but also its songwriting skeleton. Apart from "29" and to a lesser extent "Carolina Rain" and "The Sadness," these songs meander with no direction; they have a ragged, nearly improvised feel, as if Adams spilled out the words just as the tape started to roll. Now plenty of great songs have been written exactly in that fashion, but they never feel as if they were made that way -- or if they do, they get by on a sense of kinetic energy. With the aforementioned exceptions, the songs on 29 never have energy and they always feel incomplete, lacking either a center or a sense of momentum, nor ever conjuring the alluringly weary melancholia that carried Love Is Hell. Instead, it's the first time Adams has sounded completely worn out and spent, bereaved of either the craft or hucksterism at the core of his work. He would have been better off ending 2005 with just two albums to his credit and letting 29 co-exist in the vaults alongside The Suicide Handbook and his other completed, unreleased records, since having this in circulation adds a sour finish to what was otherwise a good year for him.
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine