Sunday, 30 October 2011

Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire (Album Review 2011)

For Ryan Adams, his thirteenth album Ashes & Fire may have never happened. After a short and turbulent initial solo career, in which Adams made the brilliant Gold and Love Is Hell, he joined The Cardinals and continued making great music at a ferocious pace – releasing Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights and 29 in the same year. From there, Adams struggled both personally and musically; fighting substance abuse and coming to terms with Ménière's disease, a hearing disorder that can affect balance. He also had several spats with the media and audiences and became a poet and a writer. So on the face of it, Ashes & Fire is the rehabilitation and recovery album, obviously inspired by the legend of the phoenix. But this is only half the story as Adams describes the songs as ‘trying to paint this picture of somebody not destroyed by change’.

Opener Dirty Rain is the perfect start, deceptively simple and beautifully arranged blues. Adams’ voice, softly spoken, weathered yet youthful, delivers understated power: ‘Last time I was here you were waiting, you ain’t waiting any more…’ begins and ends the second story, taking on new meaning on the second turn. The song builds for the chorus, the glorious piano and keyboards blending with the guitars to take the arrangement from straight blues to jazz and back again. The title track is a grittier blend of vocals and guitars. Adams plays the world-weary singer, his vocals rasping against the pseudo-country arrangement. A short electric solo is the only heavy-handed moment, to be replaced with a more sedate controlled second half. ‘With cool and silvery eyes; and a heart, it was fit for desire…’ is a great line as the chorus builds again.

From this direct opening, Come Home is the big ballad and a thing of utter beauty. Adams’ wife Mandy Moore and son of Stephen, Chris Stills provide sublime backing vocals. ‘Nobody has to cry…to make it seem real. Nobody has to hide the way that they feel’ is simply gorgeous song writing. This is all about the vocals, the stripped back instrumentation never overpowering the central message. This is one of the best songs Adams’ has written and slides neatly into Rocks, a string-laden three minutes of serenity with a delicate falsetto chorus. To complete the first half, Do I Wait is another wonderful song, building to a fantastic guitar solo that leads into the last minute and a choral section.

Chains Of Love is the song on Ashes & Fire that could be five minutes longer. A great pop tune and melody, Adams races through the two and bit minutes, fuelled by acoustic guitars and strings. ‘Everything you are to me is bigger than that spaces…’, sings Adams – this could be about almost anything but sums up where he is and what he wants from music and life, right at the centre of the album. The most interesting and intriguing song here is the wonderfully titled Invisible Riverside. Adams starts with the line ‘Guess I’ll show my hand. Either way I’m losing… I used to have the goods, back when I couldn’t use them’. His lyrics come straight from the heart, even if they have to take a detour via his head. The song drifts towards another great, short and respectful guitar solo before Adams signs off this spiritual love song.

Save Me is probably the weakest moment on Ashes & Fire, simply because it begins by going over old-ground musically and sounding like too obvious a redemption song. That said, it is superbly elegant and fragile. ‘What Am I doing here?’ is the final question. This leads into Kindness, another beautiful arrangement, with perfect backing vocals, piano from Norah Jones and guitar work from ex-Cardinal Neal Casal. The only single from the album Lucky Now is the late highlight – borrowing just a bit from Bright Eyes. The chorus is another gem, as is the guitar work. Adams again ends in reflective mode: ‘I feel like somebody I don’t know. Are we really who we used to be? Am I really who I was?’ – this is enough to keep deep-thinking philosophers occupied for a while.

Ashes & Fire closes with I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say, with Adams’ vocals and Jones’ piano combining perfectly. More great song writing: ‘I tried to find the balance…but got caught up in the cost’. This is a solid, if slightly predictable, final piece that drifts away rather than goes out with a bang. Piano replaces guitar for the final solo.

From the outset, Ashes & Fire is the calmer, warmer (pun intended) and reflective Ryan Adams – leaving New York for Los Angeles, now happily married and personal life stable, his creativity is as plentiful as ever. A great contribution from Norah Jones has to be noted – brilliantly delivering backing vocals and her trademark piano. The sign of a great performer is to surround themselves with solid dependable musicians, while retaining all their own individuality. This is the key to these songs and their immediate accessibility and is the most commercial Ryan Adams record since Demolition. And while Ashes & Fire is a very personal album, Adams keeps his deepest feelings to himself and the listener is drawn in, only to be kept at arms length. Such is the beguiling charm and constant wonder of Ryan Adams.
-- CS

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