Identifying emotional honesty within music frequently stalls a tuned listener’s perspective of a perplexing record; Bon Iver’s music is heartbreaking, but are his lyrics as well? Are Weezer making fun of themselves, or do they just have a peculiarly honest sense of humor with their audience? Ryan Adams, in particular, confounds even the most dogged interpreter of his work. Most recently Adams put out a sci-fi metal concept album under the name Orion, preceded by a rootsy country-rock album with his favorite backing band, The Cardinals. He has a slew of unfortunately named side projects (Werewolph and Sleazy Handshake the least fortunate of the bunch), so that the troubadour’s new LP, Ashes and Fire, is recorded under his name bears out some sort of miracle. But lest listeners believe Adams would return to the easy pop of Easy Tiger or Gold, or even (one hopes) make a fitting sequel to Heartbreaker, the prolific songwriter’s compass has geared him toward plaintive dad-folk, at once contemplative, derivative and occasionally poignant.
But those who love the hardcore pop of Adams’ more AM radio geared fare will certainly be satiated. Violin soaked “Chains of Love” turns Adams into a back porch version of Coldplay, “Rocks” tunes the vocal pitch up to James Taylor levels and the title track recalls country fried Ben Folds. Adams has always been a man of many faces, but the faces he chooses to emulate here show themselves far more clearly than before. Some work better than others; “Kindness” recalls Bonnie Raitt in many of the important ways, and brings back one of Heartbreaker’s greatest strengths, that Adams’ voiced blends almost spiritually perfectly with a woman’s.
Even if he’s cooing duds like “do you believe in love?,” the vocal interplay and welcome introduction of a Wurlitzer pipe organ make up for the broad lyrical strokes that pepper the last half of the album.
Harder to determine, though, is whether those emotionally cloying phrases hurt Ashes and Fire. An album not built off of anything complexing, the breeziness of the music frequently drifts together with the wispy lyrics. Only the painfully naïve would allow themselves to be emotionally moved by what Adams is singing, but its a testament to his deep well of musical knowledge that he knows how to bend a tune to hit not just your ear. Easily the best track on the record, “Save Me” borrows heavily from Southern contemporary-pop legend Marc Cohn, building to something that isn’t quite gospel, but certainly has a certain first world style pain. Most of the songs here aren’t directed at anyone specific, which gives them a bit of a cinematic in the wrong way vibe; Ashes and Fire, in its bad moments (final song “I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say”), sounds like obvious choices for movie soundtracks.
Ryan Adams has long shed his emotionally vulnerable skin, and he no longer has the verve to pipe up something powerful or adroit enough to enrapture a listener. Ashes and Fire is affirmation of that, as if his work with the Cardinals hadn’t hinted toward where we are now already. But instead of expected something groundbreaking, Ryan Adams has made something simple and effective, if broad-stroked and borrowed. The man remains a talented musician, and his do-as-much-with-this-little approach here works more than it doesn’t. Just don’t go in expecting “Come Pick Me Up.” He’s past that.
Ryan Adams – Ashes and Fire Tracklist::
- “Dirty Rain”
- “Ashes & Fire”
- “Come Home”
- “Do I Wait”
- “Chains of Love”
- “Invisible Riverside”
- “Save Me”
- “Lucky Now”
- “I Love You But I Don’t Know What to Say”