Time Capsule 2005: Another Side of the "New Dylans"

“Time Capsules” is our way of putting some of our favorite albums from particular years into a… little, um, time capsule so music fans can read our reviews of notable releases from various years. We were going to take the actual CD’s and launch them into space in real time capsules, or bury them in the ground so future generations and/or aliens could be sure to find the best CD’s preserved. But that seemed a bit pricey and foolish. Plus, aliens (and/or future generations) aren’t likely to go digging thru the ground looking for stuff, they’ll probably just poke around on the internet. Let’s hope they find this site sooner than later. The following review was written in 2005:

With the release of 2005’s first handful of great records, four of America’s finest singer/songwriters have offered us yet another study of the duality of each of these recording artists: Beck, Bright Eyes, Bruce Springsteen, and Ryan Adams. While all four have at different times (and to various degrees) been cursed with the “new Dylan” label, one of the things they all really have in common is a refusal to be pinned down and labeled again. Perhaps by subconsciously taking a page from Dylan’s book, they’ve each managed to explore their own duality as a means of throwing us curves and proving that sometimes following a muse means making lots of left turns.

Beck has been almost deliberate in presenting his two sides. His albums alternate between his funky playful mix-tape collages and his more somber acoustic folk material. After his wildly eclectic debut Mellow Gold spawned the unlikely hit “Loser” and offered an original mix of both of Beck’s sonic personas, he re-released some earlier recordings: the first a noisey experimental affair, and the second a stripped-down song-oriented set. In 1996 he released what would prove to be his signature recording: Odelay, a masterpiece collaboration with producers the Dust Brothers. True to form, he would then get all somber/acoustic on us with Mutations (1998) before returning to the neon lights and party vibes of Midnite Vultures (1999) and then back to introspection and heartbreak with 2002’s Sea Change. Critics loved it, hailing Sea Change for its mature songwriting and lush sound. But close to a decade after Mellow Gold and Odelay, critics and fans alike wondered if Beck would ever put all of his styles back together again.

Bright Eyes, the “band” that serves as creative vehicle for singer/songwriter Conor Oberst, became a critical and cult success with the release of Lifted, or The Story’s in the Soil Keep Your Ear to the Ground in 2002. With sprawling narratives, stunning/clever/rambling lyrics, and musical diversions that ranged from the stark to the symphonic, Lifted was at times as bloated and pretentious as its title. But it was also brilliant, earning the then-22-year-old Oberst the unenviable and predictably clichéd titles bestowed by the label-happy media of the new century: “alt-folk boy genius of the emo generation.” Yet another “this generation’s Bob Dylan.” Recording since his first demo at age 12, this protégé from Omaha, Nebraska could’ve awoken in the aftermath of such success in danger of crumbling under the weight of the lofty expectations, his own prolific output, or both.

Bruce Springsteen, the veteran hall-of-famer and most rich and famous of this grouping, has been showing us both of his sides for more than 30 years. Signed as an acoustic singer/songwriter and perhaps the first in the long line of New Dylan’s, he shook the comparisons with his wall-of-sound rock classic “Born to Run,” and epic stories like “Jungleland” and “Thunder Road.” He also established himself among rock’s greatest live acts, building his reputation with marathon concerts. His dualities really started surfacing in the 1980’s. After having a hit with “Hungry Heart,” he took a chance and released a brutally stark acoustic album, Nebraska, that was essentially home demos. This was followed by the multi-platinum juggernaut Born in the USA that spawned 7 Top Ten singles and made Springsteen a pop superstar. So, he really started throwing some curves: the quiet Tunnel of Love examined self doubt and his failed first marriage; the arrival of the 1990’s signaled the end of the E Street Band as Bruce simultaneously released Lucky Town and Human Touch in 1992 with a new batch of studio musicians; 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad found him back in solo/acoustic mode; after releasing a boxed set of previously unreleased material and a greatest hits disc, he reunited the E Streeters for a tour and then a full-band album The Rising. So, 30 years after Born to Run, “Epic Springsteen, The Boss of Live Rock’n’Roll,” is still battling “Joe Everyman, Acoustic Troubadour of the Dark Lonesome Highway” for creative control. Which Bruce would show up in 2005?

Asking which one will show up has been one of the few constants in the career of Ryan Adams. Would it be the heartbroken country singer with the golden voice or the bratty self-absorbed rocker, so drunk that he breaks his wrist falling off the stage? A detailed look at some of his solo work can be found HERE, but, like the artists mentioned above, Adams has an acute duality that’s evident in his work: the acoustic Heartbreaker, followed by the more upbeat folk-rock of Gold, followed by Demolition, a diverse collection of unreleased tracks and demos. Then the lush and mellow mopey songs of Love is Hell, released concurrently with the disposable guitar-rock of Rock’n’Roll. Despite a few shortcomings, everyone agrees that Adams is an amazingly talented songwriter, perhaps too prolific for his own good. So, like in the case of Beck, people wondered if Ryan could stop messing around and put it all together.

As the sun rose on 2005, all four of these guys were readying new releases. On January 25th, Bright Eyes showed up first, releasing two separate albums at once, just as Springsteen and Adams had once done. That’s always a tough trick to pull off. Bright Eyes succeeds, mostly because the albums, both lyrically driven, are very different in sound and instrumentation. He had originally considered splitting the ambitious Lifted into two separate releases, and by doing so with these new albums, he shows us the stark contrast of his two sides. Digital Ash in a Digital Urn lays a cold and modern electronic foundation for Oberst’s whiny wails (not unlike the Cure’s Robert Smith) and deathly meditations. It’s a solid yet unspectacular effort, but the real gem is it’s acoustic-based companion, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. This terrific set of folk tunes won’t help Bright Eyes escape the Dylan comparisons, but it does cement his growing legend as one America’s great young songwriters and recording artists. Wide Awake is just a simple and purely great album, highly recommended along with Lifted.

In March, Beck returned with Guero. The Dust Brothers are back at the production controls, and, at first listen, Guero sounds like Beck has once again followed a gloomy, mellow release with another funkfest. But further spins reveal a well-crafted and deeper album than the throwaway party hits of Midnite Vultures. It’s not quite a true return to his peak form of Odelay, but more like a mature effort that proves Beck can unify his folksinger/songwriter self with his more outgoing mix-tape party host alter-ego.

A month later, Bruce Springsteen left the bombastic Bossman bandleader at home as his solo storyteller incarnation returned with a fine new CD, Devils & Dust. This mostly acoustic 12-tune set alternates between folk ditties, somber narratives, and a couple of formulaic upbeat rockers. Springsteen’s songwriting is in fine form, as his ability to craft stories and characters benefits from Brendan O’Brien’s production and more instrumentation and melody than the quiet, often-droning Tom Joad release. Devils & Dust, while embracing the twangy folk and country sounds of violin and steel guitar mixed with his own effective acoustic guitar work, also finds Springsteen exploring some uncharted territory of his vocal abilities as he employs a high falsetto on a few tracks. By meshing his quiet acoustic sound with some light and catchy rock tunes, Bruce is finding a potent middle ground where his two personas merge into one, or at least cross paths with great results.

Finally, in early May, Ryan Adams released the first of a reported three new albums slated for 2005: Cold Roses, with his band The Cardinals. Wow. This is the one that his fans have been waiting for: a finely crafted double album combining the subtly stellar songwriting of Heartbreaker with the full-band sound and accessibility of Gold. Adams and his band cruise through the 18 tracks as the acoustic, electric, and lap-steel guitars spiral up, intertwine, and cascade down as if they were conjured up by Jerry Garcia himself. The lyrics and titles, complete with references to roses, magnolias, friends, “stranger’s angels,” Cumberland, sweet illusions, and dancing all night, are more reminders of the Grateful Dead. But this is no boring set of trippy instrumental noodlings. There are some great, great songs here.

Packaged like a miniature gatefold LP, this folk-rock throwback features two Ryan trademarks: clever word play (“Let me go, I’m only letting you down” and “Telling me to take it easy but I took a photograph”) and occasional wrist-slitting depression (“I aint afraid of hurt, I’ve had so much it feels just like normal to me now”). But while 2003 found Adams a bit brooding on Love is Hell and full of self-aware mockery on Rock’n’Roll, 2005’s Cold Roses smells of the sweet fulfillment of a great talent who’s finally letting his terrific songs speak for themselves.

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As always (if possible), don’t buy these albums at BestBuy, Target or on Amazon. Support your local independent record store (while it still exists) and buy from them.

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