Ashes & Fire
First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2012, Volume 19, #1
Written by John Metzger
Mon January 30, 2012, 05:30 AM CST
The creative landscape is littered with the remains of artists who allowed their self-destructive tendencies to snuff out their lives, their careers, or both. Since emerging with Whiskeytown in the mid-1990s, Ryan Adams has served as destructive artists’ poster child. Critics and fans alike either love him or hate him — there doesn’t seem to be a middle road, here — and too often, Adams has given those in the former camp plenty of reasons to change their minds. Whether it was his wobbly performances, his inconsistent albums, or his whiplash-inducing reversals of direction, Adams has made it very difficult for anyone to hang on for the long haul.
A prolific songwriter, Adams has shown flashes of brilliance every time he has stepped into a recording studio. His problem, however, is that he typically has been driven to release every song he has ever written, regardless of its merits. Nevertheless, Adams’ best material has suggested that if he ever managed to get his head together — or surround himself with people who could at least help him to channel his energy — he might have a shot at persuading a lot more fans into following his lead.
Easy Tiger and Cardinology provided the first hints that Adams was starting to take every aspect of his career a bit more seriously than he had in the past. Instead of hiding behind the usual array of intoxicating substances that linger backstage, Adams embraced sobriety. Shortly after finding peace within himself, he settled down and found happiness with Mandy Moore. Many fans wondered if Adams’ domesticity would temper his artistry, but if his latest set Ashes & Fire is any indication, the process of getting his life in order has given him a renewed sense of purpose. His lyrics reflect upon the notions of love and loss, but within the sad devastation that permeates the album, there also is a sense of optimism that helps to brighten its darkest corners.
Adams’ biggest successes have always occurred whenever he has adorned his material with roots-oriented flourishes. Throughout Ashes & Fire, he retreats to the country-meets-classic-rock accompaniments that defined efforts like Heartbreaker and Cold Roses. Hints of the Grateful Dead waft through the gospel-soul lullaby of Save Me, while echoes of Bob Dylan and The Band wash across the surface of the title track. Although none of these influences is new to Adams’ work, it is difficult to shake the fact that much of Ashes & Fire also feels like a response to Ray LaMontagne’s recent outings.
It has been quite some time since Adams has delivered an album that is as passionately performed as Ashes & Fire. Norah Jones, Benmont Tench, and Greg Leisz leave their imprint on the set, gently supporting Adams’ heartfelt vocals with tender harmonies, swirls of organ, and curls of pedal steel guitar. Their input certainly helps to color Adams’ material, but even without them, there is no doubt that Ashes & Fire is one of the strongest albums in Adams’ canon. The endeavor is musically focused and lyrically mature, and the consistency of its songs gives the affair a greater sense of cohesiveness than Adams’ efforts typically exude.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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