Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire

Ashes & Fire (2011)


1. Dirty Rain 2. Ashes & Fire 3. Come Home 4. Rocks 5. Do I Wait 6. Chains Of Love 7. Invisible Riverside 8. Save Me 9. Kindness 10. Lucky Now 11. I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say


So Ryan got diagnosed with the most snootily-named affliction ever, Ménière’s disease (doesn’t it sound more like a white wine sauce French people put on snails or something?), and when its effects began taking their toll on Ryan in 2009 he promptly broke up the Cardinals and announced, via blog post, that he was taking an indefinite hiatus from recording and touring. Some in the media interpreted this as Ryan’s retirement from music. Well if that was the case then Ryan is about as good at retiring as Brett Favre is. After only two years out of the game, during which time he got hitched to Mandy Moore (who in my eyes redeemed her teen pop past by appearing in two episodes of Scrubs), he made his by now actually anticipated return with Ashes & Fire.

But while the would-be “comeback” aspect of its released was certainly overemphasized (not only by critics, but by the Adams camp itself, like with his transparent “I’m not a druggie asshole anymore, promise!” deal in this profile in the Guardian), there is something to the idea of this album being a fresh start for Ryan. Ashes & Fire feels somewhat removed from the scattershot but distinguishable continuum of his solo discography that sort of petered out there with Cardinology, with Ryan himself sounding wiser and more grounded, like he’d absorbed all his previous ups and downs and moved past them. He had a crack team of old and new friends behind him, including Norah Jones, Tom Petty keyboardist Benmont Tench, Cardinals guitarist Neal Casal, and most importantly, Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Famer Glyn Johns, Heartbreaker producer Ethan’s dad, who had worked with the likes of the Beatles, the Who, the Stones, and just about fucking everybody who’s anybody, acting as the album’s producer and engineer. As a result, the record sounds positively pristine, with heavenly acoustic guitar tones, gorgeous, earthy pianos, and Ryan’s voice? Silky smooth, quite possibly sounding better than ever.

Shit, the first few minutes may even have you thinking he’s finally gone and recorded the long-awaited follow-up to Heartbreaker (and trust me, some people still seem to write about Ryan as if he’s been perfectly capable of dropping another masterpiece like it this whole time and has just been deliberately fucking with us the whole time. Not “living up to his potential” and all that. Yeah, yeah, sure. If decrepit, broken down old A-Rod proves himself capable of ever having another season that justifies his mondo contract, then maybe I’ll believe Ryan has higher than a B+ ceiling anymore). Track number 1, “Dirty Rain,” is an impressively timeless and soulful (and gorgeously sung) ballad about self-reflection, which honestly does rekindle the famous bone-deep vulnerability of his Heartbreaker persona (“Now I’m just standing in the rubble/Trying to find out who we were”). We hear that side of him again on the single “Lucky Now” (“I don’t remember, were we wild and young/All that’s faded into memory/I feel like somebody I don’t know/Are we really who we used to be/Am I really who I was”) and it’s downright refreshing. Then track 2, “Ashes & Fire,” comes boogieing along convincingly with its barreling acoustic rhythm guitar and expert honky tonk piano by Tench, sounding every bit a stripped down version of the kind of organic, fun-yet-poignant 70s-style track all that stuff on Gold desperately wished it could be (it even has a virtually identical chord sequence to “Firecracker!”).

Those two, plus, to a slightly lesser degree, a few other tracks sprinkled throughout the record (“Lucky Now,” which Ryan unexpectedly showed up playing as himself in the Judd Apatow movie This Is 40, brooding, 70s keyboard-driven “Invisible Riverside,” sweeping, string-laden pop tune “Chains Of Love”) are mighty fine additions to the Adams canon, and quite honestly rank among the very best songs he’s written since Heartbreaker. Unfortunately, there are some of other songs on here too, and they’re, uh, just kinda boring. Not that Ryan hasn’t written his share of boring music before, but this stuff is the sort of boring that sounds specifically designed not to wake old people who nodded off while listening to NPR, like James Taylor or some crap. No sudden movements, no sharp edges, just a whole lot of reeeeeeally slow, quiet, placatory acoustic ballads that just sort of drag on without doing anything. These songs may be just as honest as “Dirty Rain” and “Lucky Now,” but it would appear that these days Ryan being honest about his life results in peons to less than scintillating topics like contented domesticity and his love for Mandy Moore (who sings backing vocals on several of the album’s tracks). Good for him that he’s no longer singing about drugs and heartbreak, and I couldn’t be happier for him that he seems to have gotten his life in order. But he’s given me half an album, while highly professional, well played, eminently tasteful, and masterfully recorded, with very little for me to latch onto musically (exceptions include the semi-noisy climax of “Do I Wait,” which finally does arrive after the song just sort of simmers along moodily for like five years, and the lovely verse melody of “Kindness”). Seriously, if you can stay awake through all five minutes of “Come Home,” it’s probably only because you just drank 85 cups of coffee in a row.

Still, Asses On Fire is pretty encouraging overall for Ryan’s future output. If he can put it all together for a full album of songs that suit him as well as “Dirty Rain” and “Ashes & Fire” and that sound as good as this batch of tunes, he could really be on to something that could have the potential to excite me more than anything he’s done since at least Cold Roses. Or he could do another metal album. Either one.

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