Reviews / Ryan Adams

Review: Ryan Adams “Ashes and Fire”


Ryan Adams
Ashes and Fire
By Gerry Gomez

Any time Ryan Adams puts pen to paper, the potential for something extraordinary to happen is there. One might expect that if he were to write a note to Mandy Moore saying “I’m going to the store for herbal tea,” that it would be something for most people to frame, because chances are it would also be riddled with some beautiful bizarreness. Operative words, “tea and going out” – mundane for most of us, ripe material for Ryan Adams.

Fans of  Adams are given reason to rejoice, as Ashes and Fire (his first album release since disassembling the Cardinals in 2009), recently came out on his own PAX-AM/Capitol label. And it is nothing short of yet another musical opportunity for us to look inside his brain and ask, “Whoa, what is going on in there?”

Ryan Adams delivers the goods, this time packaged in a mellower acoustic sounding album. Adams claims to have rekindled his more original ‘rootsy’ approach and the resulting songs are a return to focus for the North Carolina native.

“I gave these songs the most consideration I have ever given and it is certainly the longest amount of time I’ve spent writing. It was made with total love,” Adams recently said.

Those familiar with his work, know there’s a couple of sides to his coin; the manic frenzied, loveable kook and the guy looking for solid ground – often times, finding that ground through song. Ashes and Fire finds Adams expressing more of that grounded side through song. Call it maturity or perhaps the result of less pressure in expectations, as Ashes and Fire finds Adams singing with a little more sage wisdom and reflection.

“I don’t remember, were we wild and young?… I feel like somebody I don’t know… Are we really who we used to be … Am I really who I was? – “Lucky Now”

“I didn’t travel far … But my feet were moving … I couldn’t read the signs … They were too confusing” – “Invisible Riverside”

Those songs exemplify Adams’ shift towards mature narrative, but there’s also a side of him that retreats back to darkness on Ashes and Fire, primarily the opening track, “Dirty Rain.” The chorus seems innocent enough with a visual of the subject and his woman, “…out dancing in the Dirty Rain.”

But that’s where the sweetness ends. The rest of the lyrics are brutally violent images that seem like the aftermath of a witnessed catastrophe or the pages of a murder novel brought to life.

What makes that sort of writing special is the fact that the lyrics are a stark contrast against a very pretty melody that may have come from proudly cited metal influence. As a result, one might wonder what would Tipper Gore have to say about the cause and effect, but perhaps it’s better to leave that one alone for Ryan to defend against a song would get the parental advisory sticker for sure.

Ryan jokes that most of his songs are about “ladies,” and in the title track, Adams gives us another heroine who’s got, “cool and silvery eyes and  a heart that was fit for desire,  drown in a river of tears, oh a river she cried, left her with her heart … made of ashes and fire.”

The beautiful old timey piano driven, Southern romp, moves the song along emotionally and strikes in arrangement and melody, as a flashback to the incredible work of Bob Dylan’s underrated, New Morning. The result? A wonderful track that should rank right up there with Adams’ best work.

Still, one wonders who the woman he sings of is. Could it be Scarlett O’Hara standing by the riverside watching her city burn down? Or should the mention of the Bower be taken to mean it’s about NYC and “Ashes and Fire” is a metaphor for 9/11. Whatever the case,  it is a genius, Post Modern Gothic Tale.

Some might say that Ryan Adams is always on the miserable side and generally writes of screwed up relationships and people. Well that, if that is true, this effort may be a prime example. Adams has really mined the well this time and goes to some new places. Although sometimes it’s difficult to predict which Adams one will get on a new release, it seems this incarnation is one fans on both side of the Ryan Adams spectrum may be thankful for, because Ashes and Fire is an emotionally charged, lyrically rich album suited for any taste.

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