[sic] Magazine

Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire

Those who were lucky enough to catch Ryan Adams recent UK acoustic tour (the sweltering Oxford Playhouse gig was a superb performance) will have seen the alt-country troubadour in a quiet reflective mood. His new album Ashes & Fire accurately captures that ambience and is a genuinely lovely album full of strong songwriting and a number of potential classics.

It’s worth stating from the outset that this album is neither another Heartbreaker or Gold as the quality control across this new work is not as innovative nor radical enough. Ryan Adams had ‘retired’ from music for a number of years and spent much of this period sorting out his personal life and exercising demons so, while Ashes & Fire represents a proper album, if it has a template then it’s the intimacy of 2005’s largely low key 29 . Whatever the case, that overused term ‘return to form’ is highly appropriate.

It all kicks off with ‘Dirty Rain’, which grows on every listen and is the sort of effortless alt-country sung with the rich North Carolina twang that Adams should take out a patent on. The excellent organ backing of the Heartbreakers Benmont Tench is a consistent and welcome innovation throughout. The title track of the album is alternatively the one real out-and-out country anthem alia ‘Jacksonville City Nights’ but happily fits in the running order.

The next two songs, ‘Come Home’ and ‘Rocks’, are lush ballads, although the latter just about manages to stay on the right side of mawkish. Much better is the tougher ‘Do I Wait’. Built on a classic chord structure and better lyrics, it’s the type of song that will figure in concert performances and, at some point, Adams will no doubt ‘electrify’ it; the same applies to the classy ‘Chains Of Love’.

Out of the five remaining tracks, three in particular show that spark which previously made Adams the dominant figure in alt-country. ‘Invisible Riverside’ would have happily fitted on ‘Gold’ and is a paean to his contentment with Mandy Moore – the new Mrs Adams. He starts with reflection: “Guess I’ll show my hand/Either way I’m losing/You still have the goods/Back when I couldn’t use them” , and builds it into a gorgeous country lament. The single ‘Lucky now’ is probably more in tune with the tradition of great songs on Whiskeytown’s Pneumonia such as ‘Dont Wanna Know Why’ and ably steered by the great producer Glyn Johns .

Finally the album’s closer, ‘Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say’, is one of Adams’s best love songs in a very long time and destined to be covered by all and sundry in the Nashville community.

Ashes & Fire is an appropriate title for this album since it is mostly a languid slow-burn with songs that gently reveal more on every listen. Throughout, Ryan Adams is in great voice and this work demonstrates that real discipline which has been lacking in some of his previous work, although the strange critical consensus in some parts that he ceased making great music after Gold is, in the words of General Norman Schwarzkopf, a load of “bovine scatology”. In the last analysis, Ashes & Fire is a very fine record that hints at even greater possibilities – something that all connoisseurs of real music should celebrate and offer a quiet hurrah.