Defining Ryan Adams is difficult. The guy looks like Elton John, sounds like Gram Parsons and wishes he were Henry Rollins. Musically, Adams will not allow anyone to pigeonhole him. The up and down trajectory of Adams’s staggeringly prolific career was once again in the ascendent with this recording.
On this his sixteenth release, including everything from Whiskytown, his solo albums as well as his work with The Cardinals but excluding the many, many unreleased albums, Adams reveled in familiar moody, country hues. Yet there is no sense on Ashes that Adams is repeating himself. If anything, he sounded more relaxed and confident in his approach here then in some of his more extemporaneous exercises. There was nothing petulant or bratty about the music this time out, just a seasoned and mature Adams playing some of his most subtle and harmonious music.
Joining Adams for the album are journeyman keyboardist (and longtime Heartbreaker for Tom Petty) Benmont Tench and a couple of sterling guest vocalists (Norah Jones and Mrs. Ryan Adams, one Mandy Moore). The album is produced by the legendary Glyn Johns, who is best known for his work with The Who, The Clash and The Beatles<. Johns has also worked with country singers Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, making him the ideal candidate for working with Adams: the proverbial punk-rocker-stuck-inside-a-cowboy's-body. Collectively, the sound on the album is of a mellower, matured Adams, a far cry from the sci-fi thrash metal-music prankster behind 2010's awful Orion album or his self-indulgent punk side-project, The Finger. To that end, this is one of the more cohesive offerings from Adams, whose passion and prolific spurts of writing have seen him release his share of sputter-and-spurt albums, more so than Robert Pollard.
Ashes & Fire is sparse but not underproduced. More Heartbreaker than Cardinalogy, Ashes is the culmination of years of touring, writing, experimentation and hard living. The rough edges of Adams’s voice are just desserts for his excesses, but those edges serve the music justly. This is the anti-Jack Johnson album: gorgeous but not vacuous; folksy but not in a hippy-dippy way; atmospheric but not trite. The album sounds both new and aged at the same time. Like instant classic rock, but in a good way. Think Joni Mitchell via Tom Petty. The grooves feel just right, the tempered production putting the focus where it should be: the words.
The rough edges have been rubbed off; what’s left is the velvety veneer of 70s AM radio, allowing the craftsmanship of these ten songs to stand on their own. The deft flourishes of Tench’s keys adds a mid-70s AM radio vibe to the record. The hushed majesty of “Come Home” weeps along with an aching pedal steel accompaniment. And throughout the album, the harmony vocals of Moore and Jones harken back to the Neil Young albums where Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt added their ethereal vocals (If Neil Young wasn’t a direct influence on this record, I’ll eat a pair of Adams’s socks).
Ashes broods without being boring, pretentious or dull; its simmers low and slow, never boiling over but still producing wicked heat. “Do I Wait” is as tragic and haunting as Adams has ever sounded. But for the forlorn moments of doubt, there are bright skies of elation on Ashes. “Chains of Love”, a late candidate for song of the year, tempers the album from the weight of moribundity. The use of cello as a rhythmic device is masterful, an elegant touch that counters the songs crystalline guitar-picking. This could be the most perfect moment on any Adams recording.
The album closer, “I Love But I Don’t Know What to Say”, shows Adams at his most vulnerable, a song so open and explicit that its performance is nearly impossible to take. The intimacy is jaw-dropping. The album finishes as it began, quietly, but with an aura of intensity that proves one thing: you don’t need a stack of Marshall amps to sound heavy.
There is no bombast or nihilism, no irony or punkish dissent. Adams sounds like a man overwhelmed by love who writes pop music infused with c&w as a means of understanding his place in the world.
Where once it seemed Adams was recording on borrowed time, paying homage to all of his heroes (from Neil Young to Black Flag, The Replacements to Iron Maiden) before the well ran dry, Adams now seems content to play to his strengths: his honey-cum-hickory harmonies, wordplay that is at turns incisive and invective and near flawless musicianship. How much of this is Johns’s doing this time out is debatable; Adams’s has a high ratio of flat-out playing the balls off a song. Here, however, everything is much more delicate and subdued.
Ashes offers further evidence that Adams, in spite of his often restless muse, is arguably the best North American songwriter under the age of forty. When he is focused, he is both inspired and inspiring. If Ashes offers any indication of Adams’s mindset these days, then he is settling down to another long productive streak of heart felt, emotional songwriting. One of the quietest records to be heard in ages, there is a potent and glorious talent on display here. Sure to be a late night favourite on turntables, CD changers and iPods alike for years to come.