Not surprisingly, Ryan doesn't quite see it that way.
"I'm only doing the things now that I should have always been doing," says Ryan.
His jaded persona to the contrary, Ryan was perfectly willing to sell himself to the masses when his 1997 debut -- the gruff, poetic May Day -- started racking up comparisons to Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen and his personal idol, Leonard Cohen. But end of the century major-label mergers, which bounced him from A&M to an indifferent Interscope, left the embattled rocker shaken -- and eventually dropped -- after 2000's follow-up East Autumn Grin. Despite endorsements from heavyweight fans like Earle and Lucinda Williams; the spare, mid-tempo, independent release Concussion; and two DIY home recordings sold via his website to the faithful, Ryan faded from earshot.
But his time away from the spotlight has been beneficial. During a scheduled 20-minute phone conversation that stretches past the hour mark, Ryan proves not so different from his music: thoughtful, pessimistic, poetic, but also hopeful and even ambitious.
"It's a nice balance between art and ambition," says Ryan of his new home, the upstart label Hybrid Recordings (staffed by some of his friends from A&M). "They're treating Regret as if it's my first record. It doesn't feel like all or nothing, you know? There's enough of that in life, anyway. It feels like we're gonna be doing this for a while, and working hard to raise awareness. And I feel like I'm finding new listeners. I haven't lost many listeners; generally speaking, people who buy one of my records are interested in what the other records have to say."
With Regret, what Ryan has to say has been streamlined into a bracing and brooding document that's also his most accessible record to date. From the wistful resignation of "Return to Me," to the snarling, politically charged "Caged Bird" and the redemptive "Skylight," it strikes a near-perfect balance between Ryan's magnetic poles: the pensive, lyrical songwriter and the rabble-rousing rocker schooled in the populist dynamics of U2, the Waterboys and the Clash. Of the latter role, evident in "Caged Bird" and the wary "I Hope Your God Has Mercy on Mine," muses Ryan:
"There's not many people really saying anything in songs today. Particularly in the current culture, you know, somebody's gotta say something. ... We're dealing in a landfill of people who feel like they've got something to say [but don't]. I don't know that I can hold that against journalists, although at times I've been annoyed at their not knowing the difference between something that's good and something that's mediocre."
If Ryan feels he's saying things his peers aren't, he's also found some peace with the fact that some of them might remain more famous -- more heard -- than he is.
"Ryan Adams is a friend of mine, but the reason more people know his name than mine is that he's willing to do things I'm not," says Ryan, referring to Adams' mercurial public persona. "I'm not under the delusion that my madness is more important than any other [person's]."
But, continues Ryan, "I think what I'm doing is durable, and I think I'm dealing in a subtlety that eventually will be gotten. I think every songwriter knows when they've done something that is almost unnaturally true to themselves."
Ultimately, it's that elusive moment that keeps him going, says Ryan:
"You always hope that you write a song [where] there's just kind of a collective sigh of relief that it exists. I'm not saying that song's not on Regret; it may be a song I've already written. But those are the ones I try to open myself up to. I'm constantly driven by my own ambition to say it better."
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I'm pretty sure he was 19.
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