Ryan Adams, Mary J Blige
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Ryan Adams/
Mary J Blige

[The Mail On Sunday, 2006]




THE LAST ARTIST of note to shovel this much music onto the market in so short an interval was Prince, whose output from that period of excess remains widely and justly overlooked. So when Ryan Adams, a man with a self-inflicted reputation for overdoing quantity at the expense of his undoubted quality, chose to issue three albums (one a double) within eight months, you had to fear the worst.
 But the first, Cold Roses, and now the latest, 29 (Lost Highway **** ), rank among the most even and satisfying work he's done. Despite launching with the boisterous, echo-laden rockabilly of the excellent title track, 29 proves to be a set of bittersweet ballads.
 Sometimes you wonder if Adams's muse is nourished by his versatility (within the broad limits of Americana, he does it all), or if he simply can't resist trying on new hats. 29 falls very much into the tradition of Neil Young's quieter and more reflective albums. And so do dozens of other records, every year; but this one has the songs to match its ambition. These haunted narratives, and Adams's delicate reading of them, command both hush and attention.
 Just in case there was any doubt that Mary J Blige is the “soul hip hop queen”, she spends most of The Breakthrough (Geffen *** ) reminding us of it. And on this evidence, it's a hard claim to dispute. If the album were half its 76-minute length, it would be an absolute stormer. It doesn't help, either, that a great deal of it is expressed in the language of pop psychology and self-help manuals. While soul has no fixed rules (and a troubled life like Blige's is all but a prerequisite), lyrical simplicity and emotional directness tend to be essential, too.
 Nonetheless, the thump and sway of No One Will Do, the easy, organ driven bounce of Gonna Breakthrough, the deliciously fluid MJB Da MVP, and the tight, pulsating Show Love (which in both sound and theme seems a none too-impenetrably coded message of defiance to Blige's would-be rivals) are enough to make this a release worthy of the regal “MJB” seal. Even the filler is of a reasonably high standard. Just a shame there's so darn much of it.





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