Ashes & Fire
Pax-Am 2011
Glyn Johns

1. Dirty Rain
2. Ashes & Fire
3. Come Home
4. Rocks
5. Do I Wait
6. Chains of Love
7. Invisible Riverside
8. Save Me
9. Kindness
10. Lucky Now
11. I Love You But I Don’t Know What to Say

Ryan Adams writes another beautifully sad chapter


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Despite their frequency, the arrival of the next Ryan Adams album still feels like an event. Each one has unveiled a new chapter in his developing narrative, another stage in a prolific career.

Packing all the heft and weight of his craft and his years in music, Ashes & Fire delivers 11 new songs, all winners, all working to reinforce Adams’ reputation as one of the more gifted artists of his generation.

His first album apart from the Cardinals in seven years, Adams steps from the soulful, lush backing his sympathetic band used to provide and back towards the simple, tasteful backing of his earliest solo recordings. Sliding away from melodic guitars and the crying twang of laptop strings, the emphasis, in sound, is back on Adams’ voice, acoustic guitars and background flourishes that work as accents rather than focal points in the music. What it loses in telepathic interplay, it more than makes up in setting and mood.

It’s not just the production that makes this feel like a throwback, either. These songs harken back to his most sensitive moments from those early classics Heartbreaker, Gold and Demolition. These are songs that strip Adams back to his core, the songwriter able to spin aching tales that aim for the soul through an acoustic guitar and a soft-shuffled drum.

In fact, it’s forgivable to feel as though this might be another semi-archival release. As an artist who has always had a considerable backlog, some of his best records — Demolition and III/IV, for example — were packed with older songs in need of a home. Not the case here. These are all new entries in the Ryan Adams songbook, serving as examples that, as a writer, Adams is still at the top of his game.

That much is evident right away, with “Dirty Rain” kicking off a beautiful song cycle, carried by a lilting Hammond B3 organ and acoustic strums. Adams’ imagery in his lyrics is lush and full, creating scenes marked by raindrops on windows, sepia-toned rooms with mood lighting and guitars in the corner, records stacked on the floor.

The album’s closing track, “I Love You But I Don’t Know What to Say,” finds Adams at his mournful best. All of the best qualities of Ashes & FIre are on display — gentle piano, organ and understated accent percussion backing Adams as he sings another tale of love and loss, finding jazzy undertones to lift his lyrics up to another emotional plane:

“I promise you that I will keep you safe from harm,
And love you all the rest of my days.
When the night is silent and we seem so far away,
Oh I love you, and I don't know what to say. …”

His muse is one that has haunted him, one that has given him and his listeners some of the saddest, deepest songs of his generation. He might jokingly call this “sad bastard music,” but it’s some of the purest music record buyers will find today.

E-mail Nick Tavares at nick@staticandfeedback.com