Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire (2011)

Ryan Adams Ashes & FireRyan Adams has a new album out. A self-titled album, which seems a fair enough thing to do after fourteen officially released albums. And a few hundred more albums that never saw the light of day apart from the odd track here and there or through rare bootlegs, due to record company obtuseness / artistic stroppiness / poor quality / alien invasions (delete as appropriate).

But this post isn’t about Ryan Adams. It’s about Ashes & Fire, the one that came before, released in 2011. I may not even buy his most recent release. Like so many others I’ve gone from being a huge fan of Adams to falling out of love with the music; not least because of also falling into frustration with the man himself.

Be it due illness / drugs / uncompromising artistic values / alien invasions (delete as appropriate) Adams went from some great albums with Whiskeytown into a solo career that opened with two utterly superb albums but was then followed by; well, a mess of erratic albums and live performances.

But then in 2011, after taking some time off to get married and to recover his health, Adams returned with Ashes & Fire, an album hailed by some at the time (including myself) as a return to form, a return to the Ryan Adams that we first developed our musical crushes on a decade before.

Now, a few years later just as his next studio album hits the shelves (at least the second – if not third – he’s recorded since then, having scrapped the earlier efforts) I took a moment to put Ashes & Fire album back on. From adoring it on release, as time went by I played it less and less, and so I was interested to see what it held for me now.

Listening again, it becomes clear that what Adams has really done on Ashes & Fire is to return to what came before. The songs hark back to earlier Adams material, three albums in particular.

‘Come Home’, ‘Save Me’ and ‘Kindness’ could have come from 2005’s Jacksonville City Nights, carrying Adams’ more mature, tear-weary voice, lush countrified arrangements and luscious steel guitar.

Ashes & Fire also lifts from Gold, Adams’ 2001 commercial breakthrough, the gorgeous, tremulous yet lively part-heartbroken part-hopeful love songs Adams writes so well, in particular on ‘Chains of Love’ and the album’s title track.

And, from his stunning solo debut Heartbreaker from 2000, we can hear the live-in-studio feel, stripped back and acoustic guitar, in particular on the album’s open ‘Dirty Rain’.

If it’s possible to pick through the 11 songs on Ashes & Fire and place them amongst those three albums, it’s just as easy to pick what this album isn’t. This isn’t the raucous glam and brit pop influenced rock of Rock n Roll, nor is this album the commercial, full-on country rock sound of the last couple of releases he did with The Cardinals, nor is Ashes & Fire the twin-guitar led Grateful Dead revival that was Cold Roses (my favourite Adams album, by the way).

Adams is squarely in a comfortable country ballad space with Ashes & Fire, not straying too far from what is probably a very safe course for him. And yet, despite that, despite the near unoriginality of it, the album is gorgeous. Beautiful. Adams may’ve done this many times before but, when his voice creaks and rises and breaks within one of his ballads it’s confirmed again that he really is very very good at this style of music.

But beyond those things that Adams does so well, there’s two particular elements to Ashes & Fire that lift it for me, at least for as long as I listen to it, to a blissful musical experience. Long time Adams collaborator Norah Jones returns to provide backing vocals on three of the albums tracks, and as usual her and Adams voices meld to create something heartaching and bittersweet.

Jones also plays piano on many of the songs, providing a superb counterpart to Adams and his guitar, adding a timbre and tone that brings the songs to life. But even more than Jones’ contributions on the keys are those of Benmont Tench, founding member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Tench plays piano, electric piano or sublime Hammond B3 on almost all of Ashes & Fire’s tracks, and it’s his contributions that lift this album beyond a pastiche or rehash of what Adams had done before to something quite special.

And, as I listen to ‘Do I Wait’, as Adams’ voice weeps and Tench’s B3 soars, I realise that I probably will go out and buy that new Ryan Adams albums. Because if Ryan Adams has even one song on it like this one, it’ll be worth it the price of purchase.

Beer match: This is a relaxed album, not too challenging but with little touches that reward you if you pay attention. The quality is in the details. And that makes me think of Yeastie Boy’s ‘Digital’ IPA; an IPA in the American style, but one that won’t always stand head-or-shoulders above the hop-monsters and sugar bombs that some other local brewers can put out within this style.  No, the Digital is well made, the right mix of fruity sweetness and gentle bitterness. It seeps on softly, and leaves you smiling gently. Much like Ashes & Fire.


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