Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire
Ah, Ryan Adams. A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma if ever there was one. Music hacks seem to revel in trying to simplify his narrative into pithy one-liners, usually centred on how prolific he is and/or the latest phase of his apparently cyclical relationship with various substances. I don’t have a copy, but whoever wrote the one-sheet for this album seems to have laid on the “Ryan got clean” narrative pretty thick if the mainstream reviews are anything to go by. If anything the clean-and-contented shtick seems a little late. I saw Ryan and the Cardinals in November 2008 in Leeds, and they were on fire. Not the wild, debauched, freewheeling, stumbling kind of Grateful Dead-worshipping Cardinals we once knew but a powerful, cohesive force playing, by DRA’s standards, practically a greatest hits set. Gone were the 12-minute jams and 5-minute inter-song gaps, replaced by well-judged moments in the spotlight for Neal Casal and Jon Graboff. His worst addiction at this point seemed to be Diet Coke and he was, we now know, mere months away from his marriage to Mandy Moore upon which everyone seems so intent on pinning the reflective, joyous tone of Ashes and Fire. To borrow an Americanism, I call bullshit.
So, PR-driven sobriety narrative aside, is it a good album? If his prolific tendency has taught us one thing it is not to expect a gem every time. For every Cold Roses there’s a Jacksonville City Nights, for every Love is Hell a Rock N Roll. And of course, for every actual album there’s a comedy black metal album about alien invasion. No, really.
It opens with “Dirty Rain”. If you were to play the game of trying to fit this into said back catalogue, this one belongs on Gold. It quickly becomes clear that Benmont Tench (borrowed from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) is not here to make up the numbers or add a recognisable credit to the sleeve; rather, Johns has him playing a lovely retro Hammond organ part. The soulful vocal seems to belong on side two of Gold as well. So far, so good, if not exactly revolutionary.
The title track follows, and captures a joyous mood rarely seen on his albums of late. A jaunty waltz-time and a Gram Parsons-esque delivery make it rare if not unique in his canon, but whether either were a good move remains to be seen. Perhaps we ought not to wish for too much reinvention of the wheel here. I think I prefer the acoustic solo version he put on YouTube before the album came out, which has a certain authenticity and purity that the album version lacks. Suck it and see.
“Come Home” is more like Heartbreaker than anything else. Pedal steel, gently shuffling snare, a longing lyric that seems to promise the safety and security that Heartbreaker spent most of its time looking for. I’m not the first to point out the connection. Produced by Glyn Johns (Beatles, Stones, The Who, Eagles and, notably, father of Ethan Johns who produced Heartbreaker and Gold), there are moments that could slip unnoticed onto the inevitable deluxe edition of Adams’ solo debut a decade ago. “Rocks” is another of them, delicate, fragile and sweet.
There are glimpses of irresistible, melodic Ryan we saw on Cold Roses; “Chains of Love” betrays his love of Noel Gallagher’s best songs, if Noel had come from Jacksonville, NC, that is. “Kindness” has that Harvest groove that so much of Heartbreaker used so well, helped along by Tench’s piano.
Other bits drift past with no discernable hook; “Save Me” makes no impact whatsoever and “I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say” makes me recoil. Your mileage may vary depending on your susceptibility to cute, or indeed to Adams songs with long, unwieldy, narrative titles (“Elizabeth, You Were Born To Play That Part” anyone? “I Taught Myself How To Grow Old”?).
By this point, you’re not sure what to make of it. For an album with a fairly consistent sound, it is nonetheless all over the place in terms of style, delivery and influences. Just as well, then, that “Lucky Now” comes along.
The dedicated/obsessed have been listening to it for weeks now, but “Lucky Now” remains a glorious piece of pop perfection. I expect it may remain so for a while yet. Even Ryan Adams albums you don’t particularly like usually have one song where he hits it well and truly out of the park; “Dear Chicago” on Demolition or the title track of Rock N Roll. This is that one, destined to show up in encores years from now, already careering with tragic inevitability towards a million iTunes playlists.
I get the same sense of compact, to-the-point poppy efficiency I got the first time I heard Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark”. It gets in, delivers its beautifully-weighted point and gets out again. The music geek in me revels in the simplicity of the IV-vi in the chorus that drives home the first and third lines:
And the lights will draw you in
And the dark will take you down
And the night will break your heart
Only if you’re lucky now
In the end, the album is encapsulated in the change between the second and final choruses, when the lyric becomes:
And if the lights draw you in
And the dark can take you down
And love can mend your heart
But only if you’re lucky now
Stop press, Ryan Adams believes in love. Probably. If you’re lucky. Perhaps it’s a reflection on the fragility of the place he finds himself, an expression of the fear that it might all disappear with the same roll of the dice that he thinks brought it along in the first place.
At this point in his career, Adams doesn’t need to, nor could he, try to encapsulate his entire career in one album. This isn’t definitive, nor is it his best album, but it’s a stop on a long road. It won’t change the world, or even the world’s perception of him. It won’t get more than a track or two onto my Best Of Ryan Adams playlist either, but at this point that’s probably about all we could reasonably expect.
Ashes & Fire is streaming at Ryan’s Smashing Life, where you can read Chris Fullerton’s take on it and make your own mind up.