Ryan Adams: Ashes & Fire

He’s back. Stirring return to form from the lost boy of country…

ROOTS-LOVING RYANISTAS have had to make do with scantpickings of late. Since winding up The Cardinals in 2009 he’s briefly dabbled in stoner rock, released an online “sci-fi metal concept album” and become an author. There were rumours of a Whiskeytown reunion, though nothing ever came of it. What we do know is that an inner ear disorder affected his nervous system for a while, during which time he discovered the joys of mountain hiking and set out on a serious health kick.

Whatever the details, the hiatus seems to have done the job. Ashes & Fire, Adams’ first all-new offering since 2008, is an understated gem. Stones/Zeppelin legend Glyn Johns (whose son Ethan oversaw three of Adams’ solo albums, including the mighty pair Heartbreaker and Gold) is in the producer’s chair, though those expecting a return to the thrusting country-rockisms of yore will have to wait longer. Instead it’s an album of mostly redemptive love songs, suggesting that Adams, now five years sober, is enjoying a period of serene domesticity with actress wife Mandy Moore. There’s precious little percussion, the signature sound being gentle acoustics, piano and a Southern gospel undertow courtesy of Benmont Tench’s lovely organ fills.

Anyone who saw Adams on his recent British tour may recognise the delicious title track and ‘Lucky Now’, the latter with a discreet twangy guitar solo. It’s tempting, too, to rummage for clues to Adams’ salvation among the lyrics as he tenderly intones: “I feel like somebody I don’t know/Are we really who we used to be/Am I really who I was?” There’s a touch of Neil Young-like reverie to ‘Invisible Riverside’, a blissful tune wherein the stars slide into the ocean, while ‘Chains Of Love’, with ravishing string arrangement, is among the best things he’s ever done.

Detractors have serially dismissed Adams as little more than a voracious magpie, appropriating others’ musical styles as his own, but Ashes & Fire at last sounds like the work of a man who’s happy being no one else but himself.

© Rob HughesUncut, November 2011

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