Ashes & Fire

Ryan Adams is an amazingly prolific artist, sometime releasing multiple albums in the course of a year. He’s never settled on one genre, confounding fans and critics as he’s leapt between rock, alt-country, and even a shot at sci-fi metal album. Perhaps what was most perplexing about the last two years of his career is his lack of production. What’s up with Mr. Adams?

Adams has spent the last few years building a studio, settling into married life, getting sober, and discovering the perks of maturity. He’s also been dealing with the effects of Meniere’s disease, a degenerative condition affecting hearing and balance. This time of introspection and healing produced a new batch of songs that examines his wild years and lost relationships but from a secure distance. Adams also found himself spurred on by a sense of competition. After hearing an album by the young English folk artist, Laura Marling, Adams began reassessing his latest songs which resulted in his throwing most away.

Adams settled on veteran producer Glyn Johns for the recording of Ashes & Fire. His expertise in the technical aspects of the sessions allowed Adams’ to focus on the performance of the songs. His lyrics roll out like diary entries, like love letters to gone by places and people. Adams vocals are unstrained but emotional, with pauses that accentuate the thought process behind the words. The album’s mood is set in the first track. “The last time I was here it was raining” sings Adams, “just looking through the rubble/Tryin’ to find out who we were.” His vocals take the spotlight at first, eventually bowing to a rising tide of organ, piano, and guitar. Mr. Adams has slowed down and is taking stock of his life, in the process recognizing how fortunate he is. That process is encapsulated on the touching “Lucky Now.” “I don’t remember, we’re we wild and young?/All that’s faded into memory/I feel like somebody I don’t know/Are we really who we used to be/Am I really who I was?

Ashes & Fire picks up the pace with a juke-joint piano, up tempo percussion, and guitar solo. The mood is less penitent but still conveys a sense of coming to terms with past indiscretions. “Come Home” is a beautiful ballad of redemption resplendent with crying pedal steel and backing vocals from Norah Jones, Stephen Stills, and Adam’s wife, Mandy Moore. “Chains of Love” features strings and a pop song temperament but mostly Ashes & Fire is a quiet album with slow to mid tempo tracks. The biggest difference between this and past Ryan Adams’ releases is in his lack of morose meandering. There have been times in his career when Adams seemed to be releasing everything he wrote. This time out he’s refined the selections. The result is a cohesive record that displays patience, maturity, and willingness to compromise.

Rosemary Welsch (Afternoon Host)