Following 2008’s Cardinology, Ryan Adams took a roughly two-year hiatus from music to treat Ménière’s disease– an idiopathic disorder of the inner ear that affects hearing and balance– and there was considerable doubt as to whether he’d ever perform again. Talks of a Cardinals reunion (his backing band from 2004-2009) was squelched by Adams due to the death of bassist Chris Feinstein, yet rumors continued to swirl about his archival recordings, a potential Whiskeytown tour and an array of other concerns in which fans, and the industry at large, had quite a difficult time grasping the possibility that Ryan Adams had truly retired. For an artist who released three albums alone in 2005 and whose prolificacy was part and parcel with his image, the future loomed discouragingly.
Perhaps it’s these workings of modern-day myth that created an even bigger commotion when Adams announced his re-entry into the music scene with 2011’s Ashes & Fire. Historically erratic both onstage and off, uncertainty regarding the music’s quality definitely increased anticipation and raised the stakes significantly. The fact that Ashes & Fire is not only a welcome return to form but an excellent album on its own is a cause for celebration and a bit of told-you-so indulgence. But after the initial mirthful basking in Adam’s ability to beat the odds, what remains are eleven incredibly strong, well-crafted songs. And for a musician with so much social and political baggage, this is quite a feat and definitely worthy of mention.
Ashes & Fire begins with “Dirty Rain,” a strummed guitar track that picks up with flourishes by Norah Jones on acoustic piano and Benmont Tench on electric piano. Adams sings about a fairly chilling city scene of destruction and fear, but when he explodes into the chorus, reaching high in his range, the words take on a softer and kinder feel. He sings, “So may the winds blow and the moonlight know your name / So let the needle move the record round / Until the walls cave in / and you and I are out dancing in the dirty rain.” The title recalls the devastation chronicled previously, but the evocation of moonlight and old vinyl both act to reassure and soothe. It’s easily one of the best tracks in Adam’s career and leads off the album with vigor and an intensity of song-writing.
Title track “Ashes & Fire” follows, which adopts a more poetic approach to “Dirty Rain” and its world of chaos. Again, Adams creates a female subject stuck in frustrating circumstances but with the capacity of making even tumult look beautiful, yet this time it’s more of a remove and story-telling moment.
“Come Home” is next, and on paper and upon first listen is a horribly trite song full of cliché. He sings, “And nobody has to cry to make it seem real / and nobody has to hide the way that they feel / If you stay here tomorrow you’ll be fine / I will be here for you forever by your side.” It’s the type of sappy lyrics that Adams has successfully avoided for the majority of his career, and then the inclusion of Norah Jones and wife Mandy Moore on harmony vocals causes even more concern. And there is definitely a level to which “Come Home” doesn’t work fully, but it is a hopelessly gorgeous song, full of tenderness and genuine sentiment. Perhaps it’s unfair to hold Adams constantly to the standard of ever-troubled younger Bob Dylan of emotion, because “Come Home” unfolds into a song that may not change the world of rock and roll, but is certainly not worthy of derision.
Other highlights on Ashes & Fire include the trifecta of “Do I Wait,” “Chains of Love” and “Invisible Riverside.” The first is irresistibly reminiscent of his time with the Cardinals, building in intensity over guitars and Tench’s B3 Hammond organ before crashing into a cathartic ending. “Chains of Love” has a seriously catchy melody both in verse and chorus, and is bolstered by some nicely judicious use of strings and Jones’ piano. “Invisible Riverside” is the type of longer and somewhat sprawling folk-driven song that leans decisively on 70’s LA rock. Here, Jeremy Stacey’s drums give just the right percussive backdrop and Tench’s electric piano comes in the seams and injects a Doors-ian punch. Adams has often performed this song solo, but the addition of the band in no way detracts from its structure, but rather amplifies the whole piece.
After this run, the record sags slightly under the weight of “Save Me” and “Kindness.” Both miss the mark lyrically, treading through all too familiar heartbreak territories. And while the latter has a lovely harmony by Norah Jones and Mandy Moore, it’s far from enough to rescue the song. Still, they’re not terrible by any stretch, but they do feel somewhat like b-side material.
Adams closes out Ashes & Fire with “Lucky Now” and “I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say.” The former is arguably one of the best songs in his entire catalogue, recalling the searing radiance of Heartbreaker and Gold, but it’s a deftly original take on his idiom. The melody is indelible, the instrumentation just enough ‘90s rock with a Tracy Chapman bent, and Norah Jones and Adams’ backup vocals near the end of the song provide a stunning swell of emotion. It’s immediately memorable, and only further develops Adam’s hand at crafting rich, thoughtful and utterly fresh folk/country work. He then closes with “I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say,” which is fragile, tender and with a tinge of Southern Gospel tradition. It’s a late-night, sultry and slow burner of a song, with Jones’ piano actually reminiscent of the soft jazz of her debut Come Away With Me, but it’s again the interplay between Stacey on drums, Tench on B3 Hammond, Jones on piano and Adams on vocals and guitar that form a wickedly appealing musical chemistry. This band is quite different than The Cardinals, but they’re just the right choice for the record.
The detractors and nay-sayers will continue to rag on Ryan Adams for his past transgressions, but ten years into his career, he’s proving that not only does he have staying power but he is capable of pushing his genre further and deeper with an emotional resolve and calmness of voice. This album may be a bit too accessible and/or soft for fans of the harder edged rock-leaning work from his mid-career, but Ashes & Fire reaffirms Ryan Adams as a leader among singer-songwriters, and after the turmoil of the past few years it’s delightful to see him back on top of his game.