Rocker, metal fan, acoustic troubadour and pseudonym-touting punk. If you’re confused what hat Ryan Adams has decided to wear today then spare a thought for the prolific man himself. On his thirteenth studio album, Ashes & Fire he is occasionally plagued by but more often simply takes time out to consider questions like: “What am I?” and “What am I doing here?” (and that’s just track, “Save Me”).
Adams himself has admitted the record is obsessed with the passage of time. He says: “I believe that there is a kinder view of the self. I’m passing through my own life as a ghost and looking at those pieces and places in my life. I’m looking at California and the idea of being lost and found at the same time”.
It sounds like the perfect recipe for outright confusion but perhaps makes more sense when you consider the events that have dotted his life over the past three years (the longest break between releasing studio albums under his own moniker). On the one hand there is a maturity that has come with being clean and sober and a contentment with getting married to Mandy Moore and taking a little “domestic” time-out. While on the other hand there has been plenty of sources for melancholy like personal health issues, the disillusion of his backing group, The Cardinals and the tragic death of the band’s bassist, Chris Feinstein.
Ashes & Fire is a slow-burning effort that sees 11 mostly-acoustic songs filled with ruminations and nostalgia that are executed with a strong, rustic charm. The opening, “Dirty Rain” starts off wistful with talk of prior storms but picks up when Adams admits that it “Isn’t raining anymore”. The title track is more upbeat, the keys rise just like a phoenix or soar like the temperature on a particularly balmy summer’s day.
“Come Home” sees Adams accompanied by Moore and Norah Jones on vocals for something that begins as a quiet, gentle hum of a whisper before ultimately building into a country song that could’ve appeared on Neil Young’s Comes A Time. Another fabulous songwriter is referenced on the following, “Rocks” and that is Nick Drake. Here, Adams is accompanied by some very lush strings that verge on the cinematic, before some distorted guitar riffs that could’ve been performed by Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis make an appearance on “Do I Wait”.
The second half of the album – like much of the first – deals with messy human emotions plus more reminiscing by this tortured and tragic artist. Unfortunately, it also includes some cuts that blend a little too much into one another. It’s a shame because “Lucky Now” is a tender and earnest piece about the late Feinstein while closer, “I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say” is a delicate ballad that could easily sum up his love and affection for Moore.
On Ashes and Fire, producer Glyn Johns (The Beatles, Bob Dylan) – and the father of Ethan who produced Adams’ Heartbreaker, Gold and 29 efforts – has given a smooth sheen to these well-crafted, confessional slices of introspection. Gone are the narratives and the cast of characters Adams usually uses as inspiration and a medium because this time around he is favouring things that are more rooted on the ground and in facts. With Ashes and Fire we get a closer glimpse at the real Adams, an honest chameleon, erratic personality and sensitive poet who isn’t afraid to expose the rougher edges of his troubled mind as he saunters through sentimentality to grapple with the ghosts of the past and present.
Originally published on 3 February 2012 at the following website: http://www.fasterlouder.com.au/reviews/music/31503/Ryan-Adams–Ashes-and-Fire
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