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Ryan Adams

True to his word, Ryan Adams released three albums in 2005 in honor of turning 30. The last one, 29, is the most contemplative, and will be difficult to appreciate if you simply let it play in the background. You'll need to approach 29 when you have the time necessary to engage a work of art. Once you do, the rich emotional undercurrents that swirl within these spare ballads will reward you.

Intentionally or unintentionally, Adams wanders into confessional terrain usually reserved for moody songwriters like Mark Eitzel. Adams hasn't opened up this much since his 2000 debut, Heartbreaker. 29 articulates the petty confusion and weird grief that results once the door of youth is closed forever. In "Strawberry Wine," Adams sings over a waltzing acoustic guitar: "Before you get old you'd better break out of it, my old friend / 'cause it's getting winter and if you want any flowers / you gotta get your seeds in the ground." Here, you can hear the imminent choice grinding in the speaker's mind, between living like a gypsy or merely succumbing to convention. Empty-house imagery crops up in the jazzy shuffle of "Nightbirds" and the twangy jaunt of "Carolina Rain"--suggesting that, for Adams at least, being on the road invites loneliness and isolation.

The best song is "Elizabeth, You Were Born to Play That Part," a five-minute masterpiece that starts out with desolate piano before transforming into a shower of fluttering guitars. Only Dylan was this prolific and this challenging--and that was many years ago. I'm done counting Adams' prolific output; I'll just be grateful whenever another album appears.

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