Ryan Adams has been many things over the years. He began as a punk cowboy in his Whiskeytown days, switched the electric guitar for his acoustic guitar and harmonica for Heartbreaker, switched back to his electric guitar and brought out the leather pants for Rock N Roll, then sobered up and mellowed out for Easy Tiger, along with many other characters in-between that I don’t have time to keep track of. For his new album, Adams has a new persona – classic rocker. Ashes & Fire, Adams’s first album since the disbandment of his backing band The Cardinals, recaptures the classic sound of his first two albums while exploring a new, more reflective side that highlights Adams’s strengths as a songwriter.
Adams was singing about death, loss, and old age when he was in his early twenties. Now, almost thirty-seven, he is approaching the age he was singing about, and he’s a little surprised he’s still alive. He has battled drug and alcohol problems over the years and had recently struggled with Meniere’s Disease. But then he got sober, married Mandy Moore, and was able to take a much needed break from music. Now he’s back and healthy, and you hear his gratitude all over Ashes & Fire – no album since Heartbreaker is as personal and retrospective as this one. Though Adams has been clean for some time, this time he really sounds like a new man, a much older and experienced man.
Album opener “Dirty Rain” starts out with just Adams, accompanied by his guitar, soft drums, and light piano, telling a story about coming back to a place once familiar now completely changed. But instead of being bitter, like Heartbreaker-Adams, he sings of hope that life can carry on and that his memories of “us dancing in the dirty rain” never goes away. The rest of the album is as reflective as “Dirty Rain”, though most of the time not as direct. “Ashes & Fire” and “Chains Of Love” are the album’s more faster-paced songs, while everything else plays out slower like a good Gram Parsons song.
The music is as country as Jacksonville City Nights, but rather than focusing on the storytelling, Ashes & Fire runs on pure emotion, the kind Johnny Cash is famous for. The album I’m remind of the most of when I heard this is Neil Young’s Harvest, an album with country-rock production that is strong but doesn’t overshadow the music. This is for sure Adams’s best produced album. The vocals are especially strong, and Glyn Johns, who also produced for The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Clash, sure has nice and expensive microphones that brings out the vocals and instruments.
I would love to tell you this album is perfect, but it’s not. Many of the songs sound the same, and the lyrics sometimes are too broad. Much of the time it seems like Adams is just talking for the sake of talking, and you can’t tell what he is trying to get at. It’s one of Adams’s more focused album, which is both a good and bad. It is an easy album to listen to from start to finish, but there are very few moments that really stand out on the first couple of listens. “Lucky Now”, the album’s single, will probably be its only one – it is the one track that really stands out on its own.
If I didn’t know any better, I would say this is Ryan Adams’s back to basics album, him trying to recapture the magic of his excellent debut Heartbreaker. However, I know this is not the case. Adams was never one to try to repeat something just for the sake of success – both his strength and weakness – and Ashes & Fire is not his attempt at making Heartbreaker II. This is Adams at a new point in his life, and all he wants to do is sit back and reflect. Adams had noted that the album’s title came from the idea of a Phoenix, and if I’m allowed to interpret his meaning, this album is truly the rebirth of his strengths as a songwriter – something that has been missing for a long time. It’s good to have you back Ryan.
Overall First Impression: A strong return to the Heartbreaker and Gold-era Ryan Adams that will please fans and attract new ones, but won’t turn haters into fans.
Highlights: “Ashes & Fire”, “Kindness”, “Lucky Now”
Brady is the founder of Headphone Nation. He’s responsible for all this mess. Sorry about that. He’s also on Twitter @BradyWGerber