Sunday, October 23, 2011

Adams' Ashes & Fire marks a return to returning to form

Ed note: Hey, a post! Huzzah!

Ryan Adams spent the better half of the last ten years in a sort of lull. It began after his triumphal 2005, when he released his famous triad of LPs. These were quality efforts–I'd wager the average Adams fan stands behind at least one of them as a classic. After eschewing a release in 2006, Adams and his Cardinals gave us Easy Tiger the following year, which was met with relative indifference by much of his longtime fanbase (fun fact: a review of ET was one of the earliest posts on this blog. I gave it the benefit of the doubt back then, but it hasn't aged well.) Those feelings of indifference cauterized into dismay and frustration when Cardinology dropped in 2008. Adams warbled his way through a slate of templated light-rock, leaving only the most feverish apologists in his corner. The rest of us wondered what happened to the dynamo who spent most of the late 90s and early 2000s pumping out a staggering cannon of magnetic, thoughtful songs with seemingly little effort.

As every review is quick to point out, Adams' past few years have seen him release a metal album and a mildly satisfying unreleased Cardinals double-LP, marry Mandy Moore, and stay relatively quiet on the touring front. He's been battling an inner ear disease, at times firing off vague indications that his music career was finished. But the long-time fans among us know better. Adams has a history of teasing his fanbase with these sorts of nuggets, and the guy is just too addicted to his craft. By the way, I don't question his ailment. The disease seems pretty legitimate. But I get the feeling that only his ultimate expiration will suture off his creative output.

So anyway, the RA machine reanimated this year, and he released his first true solo album since 29, the final entry of the 2005 trilogy. Ashes & Fire, like most Ryan Adams releases, garnered a fair amount of buzz. The phrase "return to form" cropped up in about every preview.

The album opens with "Dirty Rain", a folksy intersection of Van Morrison and Neil Young. The reined in the vocal style is a relief, as Adams has seemingly abandoned the pronounced strain we heard on the past two Cardinals releases. We hear sweet Hammond runs gushing through a swirling Leslie during the chorus and outro, a theme reprised throughout the record. "Dirty Rain" isn't a great Ryan Adams song, but it's very good and enough to thaw an Adams ex-pat's preconceptions. Maybe there was something to all this "return to form" chatter...

Things only get better with the spirited title-track waltz, "Ashes and Fire". It'd make Gram Parsons smile, and seems to negate Adams' blogpost from several years back wherein he stated his hatred of country music. I didn't buy it then, but it's still nice to hear him embracing that musical element to which he owes much of his current level of success. Unfortunately, the ensuing "Come Home" loses me. The lyrics are especially brutal–any time some variation of the dreaded "how I feel"/"it seems real" rhyme rears its ugly head, I can't help but bristle. The song goes for subtlety of "How Do You Keep Love Alive" but the result is a neutered ballad. Disinterest pervades the instrumentation.

By contrast, "Rocks" achieves something in its restraint, thanks in large part to a lovely, brooding string section. "Do I Wait" is most noticeable for its a spacey tail-end, reminiscent of a swirling latter-era Elliott Smith psych-outro. I only wish it lingered on for a minute more.

"Chains of Love" is a short, pulsing song with a cathartic chorus and bridge. It offers little emotional punch, but it's a serviceable foil to its predecessor. An early favorite of many, "Invisible Riverside" is structured with the sort of major chord circuitry that defines the likes of "Magnolia Mountain". Unfortunately, it swaps out that song's gothic tinges and attitude for an edgeless Easy Tiger lilt.

Pristine ballad "Save Me" will retrigger the Neil Young comparisons, especially when Adams leans on those quivering high notes that for which Young has a penchant. It's a pretty song in the right moment. It's followed by "Kindness", a slow-burning slab of easy listening with a warm arrangement–there's that Hammond organ again. While it features a lyrical set that doesn't not sound like a Sesame Street song, they're reasonably affecting in the form they take.

The lead single, "Lucky Now", feels like a dozen other Adams songs. But its the kind of song he does so well, so we'll allow for it. The lyrics seem to refer to his new peace as a husband and sober guy. It's a little jarring for those of us who identify with his earlier persona to hear the guy sing, "Am I really who I was?" The answer is no, as far as we can tell, and based on his reputation for excess and being temperamental, it's probably a good thing.

Another ballad arrives in "I Love You But I Don't Know What To Say," and that at least partially describes how feel about the song. I'm going to assume this one's aimed right at Mandy, which may explain why it doesn't really do much for me. The moonlit "Star Sign" would have slotted nicely into 29. It's the most divisive album of the 2005 trio, but I've always liked it for because of its niche and identity. Ergo, "Star Sign" is a satisfying last act of Ashes & Fire.

The fan reaction has been mixed. Of course the radicals love it. But I've even noticed some old school fans seeing the light on this one. Me? I'm not quite ready to call it an an unassailable success, but it's certainly a step in the right direction for one of the more impressive singer-songwriters of this era.

1 comment:

Dougo said...

Good review.

I think the record is his most consistent yet... for good and/or bad. Glyn Johns has (helped) reel him in to be a songwriter and his production is flawless on this record. It has the best vocals he's recorded, in my opinion, and you can hear every single instrument and contribution. Norah Jones' piano touch absolutely floors me. If Benmont Tench wasn't "overcompensated" for his keyboard playing, he should have been.

You're right though it does teeter a bit on easy listening at times.