It will be interesting to see what mainstream media has to say about Ryan Adams’ new album Ashes & Fire. With this release, they no longer have any of their generic gripes to pad out the reviews. At a comparatively terse 11 songs and 57 minutes, nobody can lament his lack of an editor. This is arguably the most focused and concise record of his entire career. Gone too are the wild jumps in genre that many labeled as musical schizophrenia that allegedly ruined the “mood” or “atmosphere” of an album (see transition from “Fix It” to “Magick” to “Cobwebs” on Cardinology). So, then what is Ashes & Fire? It’s the stripped down “man and his acoustic guitar” outing hard lined Alt Country fans have been lamenting for since Heartbreaker. With these staunch Heartbreaker fans given what they’ve been clamoring for (theoretically anyway), does it live up to these lofty expectations?
Gentle acoustic strums with soft underlying piano ease us into mood of the album with standout track “Dirty Rain.” Singing of coats full of bullet holes and moonlight knowing your name, it has a laid back groove reminiscent of 70s Dylan or Van Morrison. Not in any direct way that conjures a particular song, but the general atmosphere of the instrumentation and casual use of evocative metaphors. The feel-good vibe strengthens as it segues into perfect follow up “Ashes & Fire,” which plays like a drunken waltz that will have the listeners swaying instantly. This one-two punch of songs sounds absolutely effortless and more importantly, fun. No overwrought lyrics or trying to fit too many syllables into a line, it just flows naturally in the way his best songs do.
From here the album takes a slower, more contemplative approach. “Come Home” is the type of hushed ballad that longtime fans will be familiar with and aside from sparse drums and strings, “Rocks” is the quiet soul-baring affair that many longed for after the blast of retro-rock in last year’s Cardinals III/IV. After two quiet, heart-rending ballads this would normally be the place for a lighter or at least a more up-tempo number, but instead “Do I Wait” starts similarly to the previous two — the acoustic strums along as he asks himself if he should wait and if she doesn’t show “we don’t have to fight.” It’s almost a different take on concept of “Starlight Diner” except this character is less hopeless and much more able to question his actions. The track is a slow burn that builds as he continually asks himself the same question, as organ flourishes and even electric guitar add urgency to his question. In a bit of needed lightness, “Chains of Love” is classic rock mixed with Oasis through a filter of the album’s intimacy.
“Invisible Riverside” pulls the record back toward its reflective tendencies, slowing the tempo and increasing the imagery as “stars fall into the ocean side.” It’s neither ballad nor rocker, instead falling into a pleasing middle ground. “Save Me” has the touching feel and sound of Neil Young’s “Helpless,” but he makes it his own as steel guitars quietly twang. “Kindness” is a return to the gentle balladry of earlier tracks on the album and “Lucky Now” is almost strictly Adams and his acoustic guitar, reflecting wistfully on his wild days as he realizes the great fortune of his newfound life and love. Rounding out the album with “I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say,” he continues his recent tradition of ending albums with his most personally revealing track that could be a personal manifesto (ie “I Taught Myself How To Grow Old” and “Stop”), presumably to his wife. It’s truly beautiful in its stark honesty and simplicity—it will probably be played at weddings and put on mix tapes for years to come.
That track is the perfect way to cap this album and is a great example of current day Ryan Adams. He may have found happiness in his personal life, but it hasn’t turned his music into an overly-saccharine version of his former glory like it could be argued Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard has become. His music is just as affecting as ever, perhaps even more so than many of his previous efforts. At this point in his life and career it is the best thing that could be hoped for and this album is welcomed into the iTunes library with open arms.
The one criticism that can be mustered against this album is that at times it does have a feeling of quiet acoustic sameness, but with each listen new subtleties in each melody reveal themselves and make it a richer listening experience. This is after all a Glyn Johns produced affair (known for his work with the Beatles and Rolling Stones, father of Gold and Heartbreaker producer Ethan Johns) so the record‘s production is top notch. But this is coming from a Ryan Adams fan that loves Orion and Cardinals III/IV, even citing “Magick” as a Cardinology standout (which is probably heresy). So for those that appreciated the stranger of Adams’ ventures, it might be a lot to take in one sitting. With persistence they will probably find just as much to love about Ashes & Fire as those Alt Country-leaning purists.
This album will be the test for those purists that have begged for another Heartbreaker. It’s the closest he’s come, so what will they say? We will discover if many of these people are fans of the artist, or fans of a single album. Hopefully all will feel rewarded and converted if need be, because Ashes & Fire is one of the best albums of Ryan Adams’ career.
Written by Jarad Matula