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Published: 2011/11/09
by Sam Robertson

Ryan Adams : Ashes & Fire

PAX-AM / Capitol Records

In 2009, Ryan Adams retired from music and disassembled his the band The Cardinals, who at that time were among the best rock and roll bands in the country. Fortunately Adams’ retirement from music was short-lived, and a new album Ashes & Fire announces his return to the music world, albeit without the support of The Cardinals. Although Ryan released two albums while retired, Orion, a heavy metal album and III/IV, a collection of Cardinals outtakes, both albums were culled from 2006 studio sessions and Ashes & Fire finds him writing and recording new music for the first time since 2009.

In a sense, Ashes & Fire is also a return to Adams’ singer/songwriter roots, and hearkens back more to his pre-Cardinals solo work. For Ashes & Fire, Adams recruited famed classic rock producer Glyn Johns, whose son Ethan worked with on Ryan’s rootsy solo albums Heartbreaker, Gold and 29. With sparse instrumentation and an emphasis on Adams’ vocals and acoustic guitar, Ashes & Fire sounds more like Adams’ early albums than his musically lush and adventurous albums with The Cardinals. On the new album, he is supported by a core of Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers) on keyboards, Jeremy Stacey on drums, Gus Seyffert on bass, and this band has a more concise and stripped down approach to Ryan’s songs than The Cardinals did.

Yet there are still some moments on Ashes & Fire that show Adams hasn’t strayed too far from his work with The Cardinals. One of the album’s standout tracks, “Invisible Riverside,” features the Grateful Dead-inspired folky psychedelia that characterized The Cardinals. Between a gentle acoustic riff that perfectly fits Ryan’s vividly picturesque lyrics and a gorgeous guitar solo, the song would have fit right in on The Cardinals’ Cold Roses. “Do I Wait,” transforms from mournful country rock into a wild psychedelic jam with rich organ flourishes from Tench and Adams’ atmospheric guitar work. Though those two songs bring back memories of The Cardinals, most of Ashes & Fire is stripped down and singer/songwriter based.

The album with opens with Adams’ softly strumming acoustic guitar on “Dirty Rain,” a song made even gentler by Ryan’s delicate vocals. After Adams sobered up in 2007, he began to regain his vocal range, and his voice has perhaps never sounded better than it does on Ashes & Fire. “Dirty Rain” finds Adams singing with a soulful tenderness that belies the song’s gruesomely apocalyptic lyrics (“Your coat was full of bullet holes”) and (“Now I’m looking through the rubble, trying to find out who we were”). Adams has never been the most cheerful of songwriters, but “Dirty Rain” is morose even by his standards.

Though “Dirty Rain” opens the album with horrific visions of a post-apocalyptic world, the album closes with a picture of hopeful new beginnings. With lines like “I promise you that I’ll keep you safe from harm, I’ll love you the rest of my days,” the album closing “I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say” is the most straightforward love song Adams has ever written. With its Hallmark card-like gushy lyrics, the song falls a little flat, but suggests that this one time king of love gone wrong tales is in a happier, more peaceful state than he’s been in for quite awhile.

In fact, if there is a general theme to the album, it is new beginnings and the newfound calm that Adams seems to have finally found. Sure there is some looking back and sadness along the way, especially in the nostalgic “Lucky Now,” with lines like “I don’t remember were we wild and young, all that’s faded into memory.” But in “Rocks,” Ryan proclaims, “I believe the sun still rises,” which best captures the spirit of the album. From the gorgeous image of a California sunset on the album’s cover to Adams’ soothing vocals and uplifting lyrics, Ashes & Fire symbolizes a rebirth for Ryan Adams, and we can only hope that his retirement is officially a thing of the past.

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