Ashes & Fire
, October 14th, 2011 14:18
Ryan Adams appears to be a different person these days. Always capable of some of the most staggeringly brilliant songwriting of modern times, maturity has caught up with the 36-year-old, mercifully moving him away from the tedious self-mythologisation that characterised his early career. We can also expect discourse on this fragile iconoclast to grow out of tedious references to pretty much anyone looming large on the country/rock spectrum, and tiresome references to his prolific output and erratic personality.
Now that the wild zeal of his youth (his 'brattishness' to some) is gone for good, surely it is time listeners reappraised him – especially with this sensuous new album to contemplate. Because the man himself seems to have made a concerted effort to evolve.
In the three years since he was last in the throes of promoting an album, he has released two volumes of poetry (surprisingly palatable poetry at that), released a mock metal album in Orion, settled down to married life and, if he is to be taken seriously, ultimately become "competitive" again after hearing Laura Marling. Adams, articulate and perceptive now, has gone about his 'comeback' if not exactly apologetically, certainly with humility. In interviews he has come across as mature, unassuming and free of affectation, while the fact he is doing them at all suggests a newfound calmness. And that is certainly reflected on Ashes & Fire, a softer collection of songs, harnessing more sincerity than his last two general-release LPs (as opposed to Orion, which was online-only), Easy Tiger and Cardinology.
In terms of locating it in relation to his history, Ashes & Fire undoubtedly most closely resembles 2005's wonderful 29, even if that record jumped around more stylistically and expressed the more surreal and picaresque nature of Adams' confused psyche at that time. Ashes & Fire is nothing if not the sound of a peaceful mind, or at least as peaceful as this artist can get.
Opener 'Dirty Rain' is similar in structure to 29's 'Carolina Rain', although eschewing any familiar notion of building to a climax – a steadiness consistent with the rest of the LP. These songs are concise statements that do not peak and trough, Adams refraining from forcing things - something he has been guilty of in the past. 'Chains Of Love', 'Invisible Riverside' and the positively breathtaking 'Kindness' are allowed to blossom without irony or the perceived attention-seeking of times gone by.
Some will be quick to locate Ashes & Fire in some kind of Americana lineage (the tedious Gram Parsons and Rolling Stones references can surely be put to bed now), but it's difficult to keep ploughing that furrow with Adams. He is increasingly crossing over into that mysterious, genre-less arena where expert songwriting reigns over style and idiom, also the domain of Ron Sexsmith and Neil Finn.
His imagery has moved on too. The anachronistic, pseudo-mystical American landscapes and hedonistic excess that once made up a large part of his subject matter, have given way to domestic or family scenes and even ruminations on aging, as on the lovely 'Rocks'. The album closes with the sweet 'I Love You But I Don't Know What To Say', another track that could have been on 29 but also one that sums up Ashes & Fire perfectly: piano-led, Adams' vocals tight and restrained, a mournful but strangely uplifting ballad.
The flipside with this new balance is that the moments of extravagant genius of the past (subjective examples would be 'Magnolia Mountain', 'Voices' or 'I See Monsters') are rarer. There are fewer disconcertingly sublime melodic turns or compellingly raw lyrics. That's the price of a cool head.
But this could be the beginning of something. Ryan Adams may be moving into a 'middle' or 'later' period that could produce a slew of wonderful albums, and even more unlikely, he may be growing old gracefully. This doesn't just make his latest album fascinating, but adds a renewed charm and appeal to the 12 albums that came before, in all their mercurial glory.