Ryan Adams ‘Ashes and Fire’ – Review

20 Oct

By anybodys standards Ryan Adams is prolific. The man once released three albums in a year, and one of those was a double! Contrary to common wisdom, I actually think he’s been remarkably consistent over the past decade, only his last album, 2008’s ‘Cardinology’ failed to impress me, although admittedly he came close to over staying his welcome once or twice before then. You would therefore think that after an unprecedented three-year break (a lifetime in his world) he would return with something pretty special – but he hasn’t, for better or worse ‘Ashes and Fire’ is his least substantial album yet.

Which isn’t saying it’s his worst yet, it’s an improvement on ‘Cardinology’ for sure, and his time away has certainly made this release more of an event (it’s his highest charting album to date), but Adams’ sounds too tame, too relaxed and too sober this time around; ‘Fire and Ashes’ is just too…nice. His best records have been the ones where he’s poured his (broken) heart out – his classic debut was called ‘Heartbreaker’ for a reason. The underrated ‘Jacksonville City Nights’ and ‘Cold Roses’ also confirm that Adams is at his best when he’s an emotional wreck. And therein lies the problem with ‘Ashes and Fire’ – he’s grown up and matured as a human being, and apparently found happiness, but this means that his main source of inspiration artistically has run a bit dry.

There is a constant feeling that he’s straining for something to say. This manifests itself in lyrics that shy away from the little details and specifics that defined his best songs and go more for vague and wide-reaching sentiments. ‘Save Me’ and ‘Come Home’ are as cliched as their titles would suggest; there isn’t enough personality stored in the lyrics and I just don’t believe that he means it, not in the same way he meant it when he sang ‘Oh Amy I love you, do you still love me’.

If there is a theme wrapping the songs together then it may actually be getting old and forgetting about the past. ‘Lucky Now’ is certainly about this; ‘I don’t remember, were we wild and young? All that’s faded into memory’. On the album opener he says he is ‘looking through the rubble, trying to find out who we were.’ Throughout he is looking backwards rather than looking inwards, taking inspiration from the ghosts of his past.

Adams has been playing up this theme in press interviews, he told the guardian that “the record is obsessed with time. I’m passing through my own life as a ghost, and looking at these pieces and places in my life. I’m looking at California, and the idea of being lost and found at the same time.” This is evident in lines like ‘I think about those days…I’ve got nothing but time’. It’s also telling that Adams at one point seems to acknowledge the fading of his artistic powers, when he sings ‘Used to have the goods, back when I couldn’t use them’.

To be honest it’s not really too important to have something interesting to sing about when your voice is as expressive and luxurious as Adams’ is, and it helps when you’ve got a producer as capable and knowledgable as Glyn Johns. The arrangements are simple and pretty, mainly acoustic, and they leave most of the leg work to Adams majestic melodies, that may not be as memorable or passionate as they once were but still sound brilliant, esspecially on the slower songs. And whilst there may not be anything on ‘Ashes and Fire’ to rank alongside his best work, it’s still a very consistent record, there is barely a duff note on here.

On the closing track ‘I Love You But I Don’t Know What to Say’ he sings ‘When I met you the clouds inside me parted and that light came shining through.’ What is apparent, listening to ‘Ashes and Fire’ is that to create truly great art, Adams (like so many songwriters) needs that darkness. It’s a fact he seems to acknowledge on album stand out and first single ‘Lucky Now’ when he sings ‘the night will break your heart but only if you’re lucky now’. I guess he’s lucky that he’s found stability and happiness, but it’s unlucky for his audience that this new-found stability seems to have knocked his ability to pen music that’s as emotional and effecting as it once was.



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