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.
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.