Ashes and Fire is Ryan Adams 12th album in only 11 years as a “solo” artist. Known for being one of the greatest, if not most troubled, song writers of this 21st century, Adams has been at the forefront of country-rock/alt-country for the entirety of his career, and as such any release that bears his name is subject to as much hype as it is critical analysis.
Adams struck gold on his 2000 release Heartbreaker. His collaboration with David Rawlings and Gillian Welch on his first solo record, and first post-Whiskeytown record, hit that sweet spot of sentimentality and rabble rousing that makes the difference between good country rock and just great damn music. The bar that he set for himself with that record was impossibly high. And while he was amazingly prolific in the years that followed (releasing the albums Gold in 2001, Demolition in 2002, Rock N Roll in 2003, and Love Is Hell in 2004) it wouldn’t be until 2005’s Cold Roses that Adams would reach those lofty heights that he decended from.
Cold Roses and it’s companion album Jacksonville City Nights (also released in 2005) were a double shot of song writing perfection. Adams embraced a jammier, more Dead like sound on the former, and it worked to fantastic effect, but on Jacksonville he went all in on the country and came back with an astounding collection of songs that sounded more like a Gram Parson’s record on steroids than anything that had come before in Adams career. Taken together along with Heartbreaker, these three records are landmarks in Adams career. They are the points where he was not only operating at the top of his game, but operating at the top of EVERYONE’s game. And like it or not it’s what everything else he has done in his career to date is bound to be compared to.
So how does Ashes and Fire stand up? It’s most definitely Adam’s best album. Like i said, that bar has been set impossibly high, but it doesn’t mean that Adams can’t produce exceptionally good albums, and Ashes and Fire is easily his best record since Jacksonville City Nights. The album as a whole is stripped down to only the barest of instrumentation which leaves room for Adams exceptional songwriting talents to shine through. On songs like “Dirty Rain” and the title track, “Ashes and Fire” he recalls the sounds that made his previous landmark albums oh so good. More importantly he does so in a way that doesn’t sound so much like an artist chasing after his past success, as merely picking up exactly where he left off.
More importantly though, it’s on songs like “Rocks” and the album closer “I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say” that Adams pushes forward into slightly newer territory occupied by the likes of Neil Young’s Harvest or The Band’s Music From Big Pink. It’s a stretch to be sure, but not one that is at all unexpected. Adams has alway demonstrated the ability to emulate any and all of his musical heroes at a whim, and here he does so to fine effect.
Much has been said about the fact that Adams is in a happier place these days. Whether or not that’s the case is squarely irrelevant. First and foremost, Ryan Adams is a songwriter and Ashes and Fire is the sound of that songwriter coming back into his own. How he landed at that place doesn’t matter, and to be fair, it’s never been the case that he was even off track. The guy has A LOT to say, and how he chooses to get that out is up to him.
But what he is best at is turning out near classic songs in the high and lonesome tradition of years gone by that honor that tradition, yet still manage to find their own way in the modern musical landscape. And while his past few albums with the Cardinals, never mind his over-the-top-metal-freakout-beautiful-mess-of-an-album that was Orion, were pleasant, if not somewhat masterful diversions, the sounds found on Ashes and Fire are where Ryan Adam is clearly most at home.
We’ve missed you Ryan. Glad you could stop in and pay a visit.