Remember, my Jacksonville City Nights review? When I despaired, wondering if Ryan Adams would return to being the artist I loved him for being from time to time? How I hoped the third album he would put out this year would be truly glorious finally again?

It is.

29, Ryan's latest, doesn't officially come out until December 20th, but it's been leaked. It's streaming online, and downloadable if you're persistent (and really, nobody can convince me that's a crime, because I'll buy the CD the day it comes out), and I've listened to it about, oh, 3o times so far? It's just that beautiful.

The album's only nine songs, but they are wonderful little epics, beautiful and spare, relatively long (up to nine minutes), no Cardinals to be heard, just Ryan with his guitar, on the piano. According to Ryan himself, this is the album to conclude his twenties, and every song is one year in that decade. That seems to mean that at 2o, I'm not in my twenties yet, but I suppose that only makes it more interesting for me, this peak into the future.

In any case, while the first song ("29") has yet to grow on me, the second one is the wonderful "Strawberry wine", where Ryan flirts with singing off key but keeps it just sad, melancholic, gorgeous, and "Night Birds", which follows it, is similarly haunting, and would have fit perfectly on Love is Hell. Then, oh, just when you thought it couldn't get any better comes "Blue Skies Blues", the piano softly playing, and it takes your breath away, to use a cliched phrase. It is just that beautiful. It's over five minutes long, but it still ends too soon.

The delights don't end there. While "Carolina Rain" is not particularly remarkable, especially after just hearing "Blue Skies Blues", and seems to reflect a country phase in Ryan's life. "Starlite Dinner" is wonderful but a bit in the same vein as the other songs, though it's romantic atmosphere is hard to resist. Unfortunately, this also means this song features some of the weaker songwriting, inlcuding the lines "Is it possible to love someone too much? You bet", but weak songwriting in Ryan Adams terms is still pretty amazing.

Then comes "the Sadness", and it really makes me want to meet the 27-year-old Ryan Adams. it's a song that would fit perfectly in the soundtrack of a western, it is a western in fact, restless and breathless, talking of horses and trains and boxcars, storytelling at its best, and a song unlike any others I know by Ryan. I'm not sure if I like it yet as music, but it certainly intrigues me, invites you to listen to it again and again.

There are two more songs, and these are definitely more introspective, managing to convey such a richness of feeling with so few means: on "Elizabeth, you were born to play that part" is the melancholy tale of a girlfriend long gone but not forgotten, descending into a strange haunting instrumental part, while "Voices" is, according to Ryan himself, told from the grave, and accordingly chilling, a wonderful ending to a true return to form.

Thank you Ryan.