Ryan Adams – “Ashes and Fire” (2011, Capitol)
Reviewer: Matthew Sanderlin
Ryan Adams has never played the “safe” card a single time throughout his endlessly interesting (and still somewhat budding) career. Even when his original record label (Lost Highway) forced him to swap in Gold for The Suicide Handbook or Rock N Roll for Love is Hell, the man sprang for “unpredictable,” “wild,” and “rebellious.” Even after he stopped doing (ridiculous amounts of) drugs, Adams launched his own record label and began releasing things as unexpected as Orion— His sci-fi, metal-influenced concept album.
Ashes & Fire, Adams’ latest opus, presents a completely different Ryan Adams. “I don’t remember, were we wild and young?” Adams reflects back in Ashes & Fire‘s late-album track “Lucky Now.” “The lights will draw you in / And the dark will bring you down / And the night will break your heart / But only if you’re lucky now,” he wisely cautions.
Mysteriously absent are the sometimes scarce, sometimes predominant lyrical expletives of Adams’ earlier years. He hardly even touches an electric guitar, for goodness’ sake! In fact, most of these tracks are very simple in arrangement— Usually no more than four or five tracks on each song, led by Adams on acoustic guitar. The great victory of this approach, however, is Glyn Jones’ thoughtful and masterful production (on analogue, I might add), and how comfortably it matches Adams’ writing style. The stunning “Chains of Love” melodically conjures memories of Easy Tiger-era Adams, while Jones’ sonic precision moves the timestamp back into an undetermined-yet-ageless sound.
Norah Jones again joins Adams, along with Heartbreakers (as in, “Tom Petty and the…”) keyboardist Benmont Tench— And the quiet beauty of the eleven Ashes & Fire tracks are effortlessly revealed through this strong collaboration of Adams and his team. In other words; Adams has made his leap into maturity, and this grown-up approach dresses his fine new tunes aptly.
Lyrically, Adams is again quite simple and straight-forward. While his poetic literary voice is still strong, prevalent, and colorful, Adams seems to have trimmed the fat to the point where general accessibility is fluent and natural, and where listener comprehension is a pleasant ease. All of this careful revision leads to a refreshingly classic-caliber lyrical form from the already very talented Adams.
Adams then sneaks in a wedding/honeymoon ballad at the album’s close. (Adams recently wed to famed actress Mandy Moore, who also features on Ashes & Fire.) After all of these years of Adams defying the unkindness of love and rebuking the injustice and cruelty of life, “I Love You But I Don’t Know What to Say” is a breathtaking and joyous resolve— Almost as a period after a long series of question marks on the pages of a lovelorn songwriter. It is incredible.
Ashes & Fire is Ryan Adams at his calmest, strongest, and most mature. What more could one want? This album is easily one of 2011’s best, and unshakeable proof that Adams is still one of the most powerful, adaptive, and timeless songwriters of our generation.