It's not up for debate: Ryan Adams has always been a 'country' artist. If you didn't already know that from his early explorations in the genre with Whiskeytown (before he went solo and started asking Adam Duritz to sing backing vocals on his songs) you'd be forgiven for being misled, with the likes of his mainstream breakthrough Gold and its self-indulgent follow-ups, Rock & Roll and Love Is Hell. Adams, who then proceeded to churn out let-down after let-down for a few years, needed someone to sit him down and explain that he actually wasn't the musical messiah we'd all been waiting for. 2007's Easy Tiger was a more focused record, certainly, although an extremely patchy one; but when he revealed that his next album would be a 'Cardinals' record and not a 'Ryan Adams & The Cardinals' one, it sparked glimmers of hope and wariness in equal measures.
In any case, it's inconsequential: the sleeve still bills this as a 'Ryan Adams &..' album, but it's neither better nor worse for it. The production values on Cardinology seem rougher 'round the edges, which gives these songs a much-needed spit 'n' sawdust feel. This is an unabashed country album, y'see: shirking his commercial sound for the most obvious return to his roots yet, the fluttering guitar and Crosby, Stills & Nash-style harmonies of Born Into A Light, the meandering airiness of Cobwebs and the rocky, dirt track groove of Magic are likeable, if anticipated fare.
That's the biggest disappointment with Cardinology - there are no surprises whatsoever. Even the standouts - the '70s folk-pop referencing Sink Ships, and Crossed Out Name's stark simplicity - come nowhere close to the creative heights that Adams has skimmed in the past. Indeed, it'll most likely only be stubborn fans who are unwilling to accept that perhaps his best days are behind him, who'll defend Cardinology to the death.