Who said 13 was an unlucky number? Ryan Adams’ latest effort and 13th album, Ashes and Fire, is a melancholy collection of heartbreaking music, the likes of which have not been seen by the ingenious alternative-country artist for years.
It has been two and half years since Adams announced he was quitting his band, The Cardinals, and taking a break from music. His return tackles love, forgiveness, healing and the introspection of a wasted youth.
Ashes is decidedly more hushed than previous releases. The title track is probably the song with the most energy, but even then it does not lend itself to, say, a dance number or a fi st-raising anthem; “Ashes and Fire,” like the album itself, is beautifully subtle. It is also tender. “Kindness” brings magic to the album.
It is smooth, jazzy and sweet, with Adams urging his lover to cheer up, asking, “Do you believe in love?” Gorgeous harmonies with Norah Jones make the listener keenly aware of the song’s greatness.
The quiet love song, “I Love You But I Don’t Know What to Say,” effectively says all the right things. With lines like, “I promise you that I will keep you safe from harm,” the song almost demands a spot on a wedding playlist.
Perhaps the greatest song on the record is its lead single, “Lucky Now.” Adams seems to consider the nature of his youth, singing, “I feel like somebody I don’t know/are we really who we used to be?” It is reflective, mournful and appreciative, taking the listener on a journey to what could have been anyone’s youth.
Older fans will be happy to hear that this collection resembles his earlier material — pre-metal album (Orion), pre- Cardinals. Adams teamed up with Glyn Johns, veteran English producer who has worked with everyone from Bob Dylan to Emmylou Harris, on Ashes, something that might have aided in the throwback, considering his son Ethan produced Heartbreaker.
Adams’ life has gone through as many changes over the years as his music has. After the success of Gold, he became known more for his antics than his music, feuding with Jack White and covering The Strokes’ Is This It in its entirety, among other stunts. Prior to the making of Ashes and Fire, though, Adams got sober, married singer and actress Mandy Moore, and moved to the west coast, all the while dealing with Meniere’s Disease, the inner ear disorder that caused him to take a step back from music in the first place.
Given the emotional context of the writing period, the tremble of Adams’ voice and the distorted guitar found in some of the songs makes the album all the more poignant. Adams seems to have simplified his life and his songs followed suit: the album is rife with pithy lyrics and simple imagery.
Ashes and Fire speaks of rain and fi re, rivers of tears, moonlight, and the setting sun. It is this vocal style and overall purity which separates his latest effort from the likes of Heartbreaker and Gold. Adams has grown up.
Admittedly, many may find the album most appealing because it does not display the explicit experimental qualities that, say, III/IV showcased. But if Ashes & Fire is Adams’ attempt to reestablish himself as one of the most prolific singer-songwriters of a generation, then someone better make room for his stuff. He has certainly earned it.
If you are one of the many who have not picked up and truly listened to an Adams album since Gold, now is the time. Even if it has taken 10 years.