Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire
There are a number of media publications who are describing Ryan Adams’ new release, Ashes & Fire, as a ‘return to form.’ However, this record is actually an entirely logical continuation of the road Adams has travelled for his last three records (including 2007’s Easy Tiger and 2008’s Cardinology): increasingly adult-contemporary, increasingly gleaming production, and increasingly devoid of personality. Of course, these are all things we said when we heard Easy Tiger for the first time; that record feels like a golden age now. It’s not so much that Ashes & Fire is a bad record; what’s here is entirely fine. The problem is that what’s not here makes this Adams’ least essential record since Rock ‘n Roll.
Critics have referred to Ashes & Fire as a “roots record,” and have suggested that previous releases Love Is Hell, 29, andEasy Tiger were ‘uninteresting’ by comparison. First of all, can it be a “roots record” when it features a string quartet, piano and backing vocals from Norah Jones, and classy-to-a-fault production from legendary Beatles studio hand Glyn Johns? At this point, much like The Decemberists after their misstep The Hazards of Love, nothing would sound better coming from Adams than a genuine roots record. Secondly, 29 told stories that were more compelling and interestingly told than anything on Ashes & Fire. While Easy Tiger was most definitely an adult contemporary record, that album was still twice as interesting as this one is. Songs like ‘Two’ still packed a raw emotional punch missing from this album, while songs like ‘Goodnight Rose’ had a greater musical urgency than anything on Ashes & Fire. Even a song like ‘Oh My God, Whatever, Etc.’, just by virtue of its title, contained more personality than anything you’ll find on this album.
While the smoky ‘Dirty Rain’ and deceptively sunny first single ‘Lucky Now’ are both standouts, nothing else here comes close. What remains are nine down-tempo songs featuring immaculate vocals, but little else; no real stories, no real musical or lyrical tension, and no real personality. Now, instead of writing songs with lyrics only Adams could come up with (the ultimate still being 29’s “motherless son of a bitch”), he’s rhyming “inside” with “outside,” and “oceanside” with “riverside.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with an album of down-tempo songs featuring Norah Jones, but if they’re going to be compelling, they need to have greater conceptual and emotional depth than “Nobody has to cry / to make it seem real / nobody has to hide / the way that they feel,” or “Hear me say / hear me say this to you / I’ll stand by your side / and see you through.”
When Rock ‘N Roll came out, Adams took considerable heat (yes, from the likes of me) for affecting a personality; it felt self-evident at the time that Adams was constantly in character, and maybe the biggest criticism of his work at the time was that we didn’t know the real Ryan Adams. The problem is that, as more and more personality disappears from Adams’ work, we’re left to admit that if pretending is the price of being interesting, some artists would be better off paying it. Rock ‘n Rollwas rightfully viewed as the worst record of Adams’ career; the problem was that it was (deliberately?) awful; the problem with Ashes & Fire is that it’s…boring.
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on 2011-10-17 tosnob Said:
While there are a few songwriters who can keep up with the sheer volume of output that we get from Ryan Adams, none of them can really claim to release as much quality material as him. On October 11th Adams returns with another new studio album, Ashes & Fire.
Adams is definitely in a country headspace this time around. There's a relaxed quality to this collection. Even though he's still singing about pain, it's almost as though he's made peace with that. On the album opener, "Dirty Rain", he's in full Gram Parsons mode, singing about hopelessness, but seemingly accepting his fate without much of a fight.
One expects Adams' songs to be generally introspective. That's even more the case on the new record. The sparse, understated arrangements on a song like "Come Home" serves to magnify that.
"Chains of Love", with a bold string arrangement, sets itself apart, as does the title track, which features a saloon-style piano part. A gorgeous harmony vocal laid down by Norah Jones makes "Kindness" one of Adams' most heart-breakingly lovely songs to date, only perhaps, outdone by the album closer "I Love You But I Don't Know What To Say".
The problem I have with albums that take too mellow and personal an approach is that the songs tend to blend into one another. Ashes & Fire definitely suffer from that. Too many of these songs sound too much alike (and too much like Adams' past output) to burn themselves into your memory. As a result this is an album that takes a heck of a lot of commitment from the listener.
Diehard Ryan Adams fans are going to love this album. Those who are more casual fans will feel like we've heard all of this before from him.