By Scott Roberts
If anyone deserves to make a slow, quiet, introspective record after going through several tumultuous years at a non-stop pace, it’s Ryan Adams, and he has done just that with his new release Ashes & Fire. The North Carolina singer-songwriter, undoubtedly one of the most prolific artists this century, has faced battles with substance abuse and been demonized by some for his mercurial diva-like temper tantrums on stage, but has received nearly unanimous praise for his talents as a songwriter. After taking some time off to get married (to actress Mandy Moore) and emotionally regroup, Adams has come back with a record that may not be perfect overall, but is perfect for him at this time in his life.
After working on several records with respected producer Ethan Johns, Adams’ 13th album since 2000 (he’s reportedly recorded many others that remain unreleased) was produced by Ethan’s legendary father Glyn Johns (Beatles, Rolling Stones, Who, Clash) and each of the disc’s 11 songs has a similarly stripped-down sound and feel. Driven by quietly strummed acoustic guitar by Adams, or piano provided (along with some backing vocals) by Norah Jones, with accents from understated organ, pedal steel guitar, or the occasional small string section, most of the songs never get above a walk and a whisper (with the exception of the slightly anthemic “Chains of Love”). Adams’ singing, however, is at its melodic height here and is especially effective on songs like “Dirty Rain” and “Rocks” where his world-weariness and hushed tones are at the forefront. Lyrically, Adams is also in fine form throughout, emphasizing his place in the universe and his searching heart, as on the album’s best song, “Lucky Now”: “I don’t remember, were we wild and young?/All that’s faded in the memory/I feel like somebody I don’t know/Are we really who we used to be?/Am I really who I was.”
I kept waiting for the album to deviate from the quiet mood established from the first song, and the fact that it never happened disappointed at first, then slowly started making sense. The tone and pace of the record indicates a man at a crossroads, wondering where he’s been and where he’s going from here. Now in his late 30s, Ryan Adams is definitely at that questioning point in his life, causing Ashes & Fire to be defined much more by ashes than fire.