January 14, 2009: Ryan Adams posts a missive on his website. In it, he explained a decision to quit making music and blogging, citing a number of reasons including being away from loved ones while on tour, health issues, intense pressure and criticism from the media/fans/record labels, and the general loss of his dignity. He had come down with Meniere’s Disease, which affects the inner ear and causes everything from vertigo to tinnitus to hearing loss to general balance trouble. That’s not an easy thing to deal with, particularly as a musician. As part of stepping away from music, Adams got engaged to and then quickly married his long-time girlfriend Mandy Moore. and for awhile it seemed he was making good on his word and had fully quit the music industry.Yet in spite of that, Adams kept tooling around behind the scenes to pump out plenty of previously unreleased music for fans. Last spring Adams put out a heavy metal record called “Orion” on vinyl only via his Pax-Am label. The album was reportedly one of many things Adams recorded prior to his quitting music. Then came “Cardinals III/IV”, a compilation of unreleased material from his time with The Cardinals from back in 2006. Rumor had it there was plenty more material where that came from. If you truly believed that Adams was done with music though, it must have come as something of a surprise when just last month he announced that he was releasing a brand new solo record and would be going out on tour in support of it. “Ashes & Fire” is the title of the new album, his first official release without The Cardinals since 2005. His time with The Cardinals may be officially over, but apparently he intends to carry on making music in whatever capacity he so desires.
Early reports about “Ashes & Fire” seemed to suggest that this was a record in which Ryan Adams returns to his roots. That is to say, he’s taking the much more plainspoken, man-and-his-acoustic-guitar approach rather than something that has the full force of a band behind it or is largely electric in nature. Clearly then, it’s not quite the livelier alt-country sound he’d established with The Cardinals, nor was it the more electrified rock approach he pushed on his last solo releases “Love Is Hell” and “Rock N Roll”. No, to get that sparse, rootsy folk sound, he’d need to return to his first two records, “Heartbreaker” and “Gold”. As luck would have it, they’re also his two most popular and best records to date. In taking on such a task there’s are some inevitable flaws that go along with it. The Ryan Adams of 10 years ago is by no means the Ryan Adams of today. The sad, introspective young man has been replaced by a much more content and married guy on the verge of middle age. The headspace is different, for one. Trends in music have changed too, though honestly there’s probably always a place for a smart, Dylanesque folk singer. But there’s also the thought that perhaps Adams is backtracking with the very purposeful idea of reclaiming success and widespread popularity, that the progressive musical strides he’s made over the last decade apparently mean little to nothing to him. Adams’ last several records may not have been very good, but that doesn’t mean they were devoid of good ideas or new twists on old sounds. There may be a certain comfort in returning to your old stomping grounds, but is there really a point if you’re not going to apply a fresh perspective to it rather than simply revert to your prior ways? These are all things that should be asked of “Ashes & Fire” from the very beginning, and that’s not even bringing up Adams’ frustrations with record labels and fans.
The pressure is on Adams with “Ashes & Fire”, and not just because he doesn’t have a full band backing him up anymore. Though distributed through Capitol Records, this is the first record Adams has had total control over in awhile. Not that he was bending to the whims of executives at Universal Records the entire time, even if he implied as much in the blog post where he quit music. At first glance though, “Ashes & Fire” is a very interesting, if not lightly flawed record that is pretty much the best thing he’s done in years, even if it comes nowhere close to those gorgeously auspicious introductions we got with his first two albums. “I’m just looking through the rubble/trying to find out who we were,” Adams bluntly states on opening track “Dirty Rain”. He may be talking about a failed relationship, but the sentiment doubles as he attempts to rekindle the romance he once had with his fans. The very hushed and pure acoustic guitar and vocal opening of the track is heartening as well, a reminder of the days when it truly was just Adams doing all the work. Some light organ gets sprinkled in towards the end, but doesn’t distract from the overall song’s temprament, which is a good thing. Not so great is the production on the record, which to be fair is great overall but possibly just a little too polished. You can hear the occasional breath taken between words or the sound of fingers sliding up and down the neck of a guitar, but a record such as this truly benefits from raw and essentially minimal production. By no means does it have to be lo-fi to the point where the recording sounds damaged, but a more roughshod feel just works better in folk recordings such as this one. At least producer Glyn Johns doesn’t make Adams sound inhumanly perfect, so it makes the album easier to connect with a wider audience.
For the casual Ryan Adams fans, “Ashes & Fire” has a couple faster tempo tracks to help make a traditionally slow and sad trip a little less so. The title track isn’t going to get you energized for the day ahead, but it will get your toe tapping at least a little. The biggest overall track on the album comes from “Chains of Love”, which skips along good-naturedly and incorporates a string section that feels reminiscent of something you might hear on “Gold”. It’s no “New York, New York” or even “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)”, but the adult contemporary crowd should find some satisfaction with it as the most marketable, radio friendly thing here. “Lucky Now” also was smartly chosen as the album’s first single, as it doesn’t quite have the energy, but remains one of the record’s best slow burners with a hook that sticks with you more than anything else. The track also contains one of the record’s other begrudgingly backwards-looking lyrics, as this time Adams asks, “Are we really who we used to be?/Am I really who I was?” That aside, the positive message contained within the song is that time and love can heal wounds, among other things. It’s a testament to Adams’ path as a musician, from his depressed, heartbroken and drug-influenced early days through his cleaned up, sober married life today.
The biggest difference between the Ryan Adams of 2001 and the Ryan Adams of 2011 is how he writes his songs. The personal demons and issues have been set aside for the most part, making way for more abstract thoughts and third person narratives. Along with the title “Ashes & Fire”, there are plenty of other elements that make their way into these songs, from “Dirty Rain” to “Rocks” and the “Invisible Riverside”. Those are just the song titles, but the lyrics are about those things too, along with light and shadow and a few other similar bits. They’re mostly used in metaphor, and there’s a lesson or two to be learned from them as well if you pay close enough attention. Yet most of the lyrics are broad about nature, seeming to say a whole lot but in reality saying very little. Too often he relies on old or bland cliches to get his point across, when he used to do exceptionally well with the turn of a phrase. At least he’s not giving us platitudes or rhetoric that pretends to be intelligent. In that respect, it’s better than his records with The Cardinals. Actually there’s a lot of things about “Ashes & Fire” that make it better than almost all of what he’s put out in the last decade. Ryan Adams was almost always a better musician when on his own versus when he’d collaborate with a full band (not speaking of the Whiskeytown days). For a guy that appears to be ready to start the third phase of his career, this record isn’t a bad way to kick it off. Adams may not reclaim the critical praise and fan base he once had, but there’s still an unerring sense he’s got plenty of great music left to give the world.
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