by Patrick Caddick
With thirteen albums in the past decade, Ryan Adams has made it clear that he knows what he’s doing. His most recent release “Ashes & Fire” is further evidence that as a performer and songwriter, he has a unique grasp on how to compose a song and deliver it with a perpetually understated yet still warm tone. The album has a perfect construction, but leaves the audience wanting just a taste of the urgency he showed on earlier releases.
It becomes clear from the outset that this is a mature album. Opener “Dirty Rain” sounds like something that will be blasted by adult alternative stations everywhere. It works as the ideal introduction: employing the sparse instrumentation that is shown off throughout the album, playing with the folksy melodies of Adams’ roots, and lyrically showing off all the clichés of country music. The song sounds fragile, almost as if it could fall apart just by you listening to it, and yet it doesn’t come across as raw. It seems to be utilizing the blueprints of Adams’ country heroes, and with extraordinary craftsmanship, but with very little of Adams himself in it.
On standouts like the title song “Ashes & Fire”, Adams goes head long into the country genre, bringing in rattling acoustic guitar, slides galore, and the charmingly sharp ragtime piano. All of this is delivered in delicate measures, making sure never to detract from the carpetbagger melody. He further shows off his roots on “Rocks”, continuing the pared down aesthetic, but using a melody that, in its dynamics and quick escalation, is highly reminiscent of “Harvest Moon”-era Neil Young. But even here he plays into lyrical clichés: “I am not rocks/ I am not rain/ I’m just another shadow/ in the stream”, the usage of which seems to imply genuine attempts to penetrate his own psyche. Unfortunately, their application causes Adams to end up on the same well tread paths of those before him. In this sense, the album seems to be a lot more ashes than fire. He draws from some of the finest sources of roots music from the past century, showing off his skills as a musical encyclopedia, but seems to bring noticeably little of the personality he showed off earlier in the decade. Adams loses the bite that was once a key part of his repertoire. Even when writing about losing love and being lost, he does it within a pastoral setting that places it just outside the realm of what the listener can relate to.
On the whole, the album sounds more contemplative than what we usually get from Adams, which speaks volumes about the production (excellent throughout), but the songs don’t seem to be products of his own reflections at all. Every song plays into the conceits of the country genre, lyrically doing little outside of portraying Adams as the quiet, Southern wayfarer. Everything comes together wonderfully, but it’s almost too pretty.
That being said, this album could be used in a course on songwriting and production. In short, the songs are beautiful, at times remarkably so, but they seem to lack weight and inventiveness.
Patrick Caddick is a contributing writer. E-mail him at email@example.com