Ashes & Fire
If you don’t like a Ryan Adams album, just wait a few minutes for the next one. Last year, he released a vinyl-only heavy metal concept album under the title Orion and the III/IV double album of songs from the Easy Tiger sessions with The Cardinals. Since 2000, he has released nine official solo albums and four with The Cardinals, including a live album. That doesn’t even include The Finger, his barely anonymous collaboration with Jesse Malin. Songwriting is like breathing to Adams, and every so often, the man could use a mint.
Ashes & Fire is another solo effort, a mellow collection focusing on ballads. It’s a solid, not spectacular album with a few very fine songs. There are no bad songs on the album. Even the more forgettable tunes are pleasant enough, but they are still forgettable. Ashes & Fire is smooth, perhaps too smooth. It could use a couple of more rough edges, something Adams is certainly eminently capable of providing.
Adams has a standard sort of laidback ballad that pops up on different albums. Taken on their own, they probably wouldn’t be singled out for criticism. But stacked end to end, you get the urge to hit the forward button and find the next song, which is just as likely to be brilliant as it is to be bland. That can even happen from line to line within a song. The chorus of “Chains Of Love” is a well-worn cliché, but the lines that follow, “Storms are brewin’ in your heart/I don’t want to waste it/Better to have tried it all/Least we got to taste it,” are much better.
Same with “Save Me,” a plaintive cry for help over swelling strings and Hammond organ and strumming acoustic guitar. The narrator is in a lot of pain, he explains as he contemplates the setting sun and the possibility he will be gone by morning. “Rocks” rests on a moody metaphor that fails to inspire, “I am not rocks/I am not rain/I’m just another shadow in the stream.” Again, the songs themselves are pleasant enough, but there’s not much meat there.
Ah, but then there are those aforementioned moments of brilliance. The disc starts off with “Dirty Rain,” one of the finest ballads Adams has written, something that would have fit well on his 2000 break from Whiskeytown, Heartbreaker. It’s a tale of strength, optimism, and perseverance, reminiscent of modern era Bob Dylan. It’s compelling from the moment Adams starts to sing the lines, “Last time I was here it was raining/It ain’t raining anymore/The streets were drowning/Waters waving/All the ruins washed ashore.”
The title track is up next, another hit. “Ashes & Fire” is a waltzing, sepia-toned epic, driven by a bouncing bass and acoustic guitar with tack piano accents. You’ll catch a dodgy phrase here and there (a river of tears?) but it all fits together in an evocative package, giving the sense of a city on fire with a hurt and formidable women somewhere at its center. A few tracks later, “Invisible Riverside” offers some of the same sweeping, romantic imagery, and catches the suppleness of Adams’s voice.
The album ends almost as strong as it began. The light toe-tapper “Lucky Now” starts strong with the lines “I don’t remember/Were we wild and young/All that’s faded in the memory/I feel like somebody I don’t know/Are we really who we used to be/Am I really who I was.” If you’re really lucky, Adams sings, you’ll wind up with a broken heart. He sums it up nicely in just under three minutes.
Ashes & Fire ends on “I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say,” which walks a line between cheesy and earnest, but manages to stay on the right side of things. It’s a closing time ballad, meant to be played as the barman is sweeping the floors and looking to lock up for the night, and it’s time to decide if you’re going home together or alone.
Adams is fond of those broad romantic gestures, and sometimes they are his undoing. But when he gets it right, he is a fantastic songwriter.