Call me crazy, but my favorite latter-day Elvis Costello album is Momofuku. Recorded on a whim with whatever collaborators he had access to at the time (including a perfectly utilized Jenny Lewis), it’s easy to disregard. Then again, to do so would mean missing out on The Imposter at his most urgent and energized. Costello put a strict limit on how much time he spent on the record, which naturally gave the whole thing a sense of stakes. Momofuku was the sound of a man trying — and succeeding — to beat the clock.
I don’t know if Ryan Adams put similar restrictions on himself with 1984. Probably not, as it’s being filed under his own “PAX-AM Singles Series” rather than being marketed as a proper album. But, let’s pretend he did. Let’s pretend he locked himself in the studio, rose every day to the sounds of Minor Threat’s Complete Discography, and went to work on a tribute to the halcyon days of storied punk labels like Dischord and SST. Let’s pretend he had to get it all done over one weekend in August, prompting him to call the opening track of yearning slop-pop “When the Summer Ends”. Most importantly, let’s pretend the whole thing turned out great, because — surprise, surprise — it did.
Punk purists be forewarned: 1984 isn’t any more punk or hardcore — I’m using these terms traditionally regarding sound, not modernly regarding mindset — than Orion was metal. This is Adams’ version of the genres, much closer to early Replacements than Jawbox or Fugazi. Like Paul Westerberg, he can’t shake his uncanny ability to pull a hook out of his ass every time he reaches up there for another song, even when most of them are under 90 seconds. The gift of catch is just in his blood, from the gleefully out-of-tune guitar intro of “Wolves” to the paranoid chorus of “Rats in the Wall”. “Rats in the wall/ I can hear ’em crawl,” he repeats over nervous G-B-A chords. As both titles point out, 1984‘s preoccupations seem to be love, fear, and creatures of the night. And thanks to the less-than-13-minute runtime, none of these themes grow boring.
While the bone-headed words are a far cry from the socially charged lyrics of most of the bands Adams is citing as influences, they also possess his forefathers’ go-for-broke spirit of a kid — or, in this case, a youthful 39-year-old man — jumping up and down on his bed with a broomstick guitar, shouting along to his favorite song. Adams has never lost touch with his adolescent spirit, and punk — not alt country — just might be the perfect medium for this sensibility.
Essential Tracks: “When the Summer Ends”, “Rats in the Wall”, and “Wolves”