Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire

Someone wise once told me that most great country singers are really just soul singers. I’m not sure whether Ryan Adams even counts as a country singer anymore; he’s spent the past decade or so slip-sliding into the L.A. rock-pro universe. But he’s definitely a soul singer, especially on his new one Ashes & Fire. His singing voice, as strong and confident as it’s ever been, stands as the number-one reasons why Ashes & Fire is worth your time. It’s a gorgeous instrument, hushed and intimate even when it’s projecting with full-on back-of-the-room power. Adams moves from full-on stomp-wail power on the chorus of opener “Dirty Rain” to quietly plaintive puppydog-earnest sing-speak on “Come Home,” and he sounds just great the whole time. And the music arranges itself around putting that voice in the best possible light at every moment; that’s the other remarkable thing.

I’ve been steadily ignoring Adams’s work post-Gold, and that’s been pretty easy since there’s been so goddam much of it and my critical peers have mostly been so dismissive of it. But after being blown away by a few advance Ashes & Fire tracks, I’ve been investigating the man’s back-catalog, wondering if he’s been this good this whole time and I just haven’t noticed. The answer: Nope. There are things to like in albums like Easy Tiger, but to my hears, they’re messy and slapdash and just generally unfocused compared to this one.

On Pitchfork this morning, my former colleague Ian Cohen writes that Ashes & Fire is gaining a rep as Adams’s best album since Heartbreaker simply because “it’s his first record that kinda sounds like Heartbreaker.” That strikes me as wrong, though. Heartbreaker is a near-perfect end-to-end classic and a clear career pinnacle for Adams, and even an album as good as this one doesn’t really get close to it. But part of Heartbreaker’s power was the way it sped between moods with breezy authority, moving from rocked-up drug-spaz power one moment to stomach-punch homesick regret the next. Ashes & Fire works, by contrast, because it picks one mood and sticks to it, staying in a midtempo love-song zone throughout and sounding comfortable like an old blanket and easy like Sunday morning.

There ain’t a damn thing challenging about Ashes & Fire. It’s polished and professional, warm and immaculately produced by rock-establishment veteran Glyn Johns. Tom Petty sideman Benmont Tench guests heavily, as does Norah Jones, everybody’s mom’s favorite singer. These are people who know what they’re doing, and they arrange every song for maximum emotional pleasure-punch. On paper, Adams’s lyrics seem personal to the point of being flat and meaningless. (“My faith’s a winding river with no riversides”? Really, dude? This is why not every album needs a lyric sheet.) But delivered in that conversational drawl, they hit me right where I live.

In any case, Ashes & Fire isn’t trying to shake the foundations of anything at all. It’s a road-trip album, a front-porch album, a nighttime-bonfire album. You should listen to it outside, and if you’re in a city like New York, you should listen to it outside in one of the city’s larger parks. It serves a very specific role, and it does so beautifully. I don’t think I’ve heard a comfort-food album this satisfying since Band Of Horses’ Cease To Begin, and I loved the shit out of that album.

Ashes & Fire is out today on Pax-Am/Capitol, and it’s streaming here:

Adams himself was on Conan last night, performing the single “Lucky Now.” We’ve got that video, as well as the “Lucky Now” video and a few clips of Adams performing Ashes & Fire tracks live in studio below.

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Comments (19)
  1. This album is great, and not just because “it sounds kind of like Heartbreaker.” Pitchfork is way off on that claim.

    And yes, Easy Tiger is spotty, but Cold Roses is amazing, and well worth the listen.

  2. Michael_  |   Posted on Oct 11th, 2011 +2

    He doesn’t have the most consistent track record but I have to congratulate the guy for still being married to Mandy Moore.

  3. I’ll say this, at his worst, Ryan Adams is unfocused, messy, and inconsistent, and he likes to show this side a lot. But at his best, he’s possessed by the Gods.

  4. still don’t get why love is hell never gets any recognition but ashes & fire is still great

  5. Cokeparty  |   Posted on Oct 11th, 2011 +5

    I know Ryan Adams is DadRock but this album is like the part of being a dad where you have to fuck to qualify.

    Much more fun then Dubstepping or mathrocking, just sayin.

  6. Pitchfork can go to hell, he may not make the most consistent music but we will be listening to Ryan Adams long after some of Pitchforks indie favourites and long forgotten

  7. Tom, you’ve been ignoring Adams because your critical peers have been dismissive of it? That’s…unfortunate, but actually somewhat illuminating, so thank you for being honest. It explains why so many blogs basically sound like they’re all just copying each other (and why everyone’s annual Best Of lists all look exactly the same).

    If you’re still interested in his back catalog, I’d recommend checking out 29. It was mostly ignored or dismissed by critics, but there are some real gems on that record. Start with “Carolina Rain,” “Starlite Diner,” “Blue Sky Blues,” or “Elizabeth.” The whole thing is great, but it takes a while to get into.

    • Cokeparty  |   Posted on Oct 11th, 2011 +1

      Did you start this Gym Tanning Indie Music shit? Def listen to 29 instead of Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights because on 29 Adams actually changed the words to Truckin’ and got away with it which is “cool just keep it”

      -Phil

    • Well, I mean, every critic has his/her own beat. I have strong and developed opinions on just about every album that’s come out of the extended Three 6 Mafia family in the past decade or so, but when it comes to stuff within the loose alt-country grouping, I always figured that someone would point me toward the stuff worth hearing.

      • Cokeparty  |   Posted on Oct 11th, 2011 +1

        Def check out Wanted Dead or Alive. It’s this band from New Jersey but the ALT part comes in when the horse is made out of steel instead of horse meat.

      • That makes sense. Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound like a prick. (Which is what I always think every time I read something a day after I’ve written it.)

  8. Im just trying to figure out why its so hard for them to get the 6.5 centered in that circle.

  9. Folk pitchfork man. That review was such a sham, it was just a critique against his past recording history. It really seems like that site and all it’s writers have a vendetta against Ryan.

  10. The man writes a mean balled you can say that about him

  11. This is absolutely beautiful. This guy just keeps getting better.

    @Quenton: You’re dead on, man. It seems like a lot of people have a hard time approaching each of Adams’ albums on their own. Each one is so different, you almost have to pretend you’ve never heard the guy before to get a good read on it.

  12. Actually Invisible Riverside isn’t referring to an actual river, but actually PCH lit up by car lights in the evening. Sorry you think those lyrics are lame but your imagery of them is out of the actual context with which it was written.

  13. People who write for Pitchfork have bad taste in music, but their critiques are so masterfully written that it tends to force its opinion on you. Nonetheless, I’m not a sheep so I don’t buy their BS.

    Signed,
    Ashamed Chicagoan

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