CD review: Ashes & Fire by Ryan Adams

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It’s taken me a while to get to this review, not because I was reluctant to write it but because I wanted to give this album more time, as each time I listened to it there was something deeper and richer about it, and there was a good chance that with even more listening, more textures were going to emerge. And so it has proved.

I am a long-time Ryan Adams fan and, as his fans know, Ryan is brilliant but inconsistent. His last consistent album was either Gold, a decade ago, or Jacksonville City Nights, and the answer is dependent on which version of Ryan you like (rock or country). In and around those albums were many, many other releases that contained some astoundingly beautiful songs that I listen to over and over and over – Cold Roses and Easy Tiger deserve particular mention as being good-song-laden – but they also featured songs that I will not listen to. Ever. Ryan Adams is the only songwriter I know of who can veer so wildly between greatness and mediocrity, seemingly without awareness of same – indeed, one of his former bandmates in the Cardinals (I want to say Neal Casals, but may be wrong) said that Ryan actually can’t tell the difference between a good and a bad song, which explains ‘Halloweenhead’ but doesn’t really tell us how he can get it so right so often. Perhaps he’s just capricious.
But now to Ashes & Fire, which was released a few weeks ago … I’m going way out on my Ryan fan limb and saying it’s the best album he’s ever released. It is certainly his most consistent, and that solid structure gives us the opportunity to really hear what’s going on. There are eleven songs of outstanding quality and, yes, they are in the country genre. Each one is worth listening to for years to come, and many times over. They are well constructed without being heavy; delicately drawn without being fluffy; and – for me, at least – they are beautiful and moving. I couldn’t pick a favourite because I love them all, but I will say that ‘I Love You but I Don’t Know What to Say’ has to be one of the greatest love songs of all time, because it’s not sappy and it’s not affected and it captures just what it’s like to love someone – not necessarily romantically – over the course of years.
By getting out of his own way Ryan has also, finally, given us the chance to appreciate his voice. It has always surprised me that more is not made of his vocal range, which is usually well displayed in performance but not really on record, because he tends to not move up and down the octaves. He’s not doing vocal acrobatics on this album either, but his control of his voice and its sensitivity as an instrument are clearly captured. It’s a voice that sounds intimate – like he’s right there with you – like the song is coming through him and not just out of his mouth. And if that sounds corny, too bad – because only the best singers can actually become the song.
The reasons behind this ‘new, improved’ Ryan Adams have been speculated on: he’s stopped drinking alcohol and has now been married (to singer Mandy Moore) for a handful of years. Perhaps these things have given him the solid foundations that can be heard behind the songs; perhaps he’s just grown up. Whatever it is, it’s working.
Ashes & Fire by Ryan Adams is out now through Pax-Am/Sony/Columbia.

Ryan Adams is touring Australia in February and March 2012. For details go to his website at paxamrecords.com.

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