Ashes & Fire
(Pax Am/Capitol; 2011)
By David M. Goldstein | 15 October 2011
Ashes & Fire is Ryan Adams’ first widely available album of new material since 2008’s questionable Cardinology; the three year gap being seemingly standard for most artists, but an eternity where this guy is concerned. The interim didn’t exactly lack for fanboy documents like the sci-fi themed, faux-Danzig metal of Orion (2010) and III/IV (2010), a surprisingly listenable double-disc of punky leftovers culled from the 2007 sessions that birthed the otherwise standard alt-country of Easy Tiger (2007). But Ashes & Fire contains no outtakes; it’s right at home purring quietly over the local Starbucks PA. Adams’s first album in three years is clearly designed to appeal to people outside of his rabid cult fanbase.
It’s also his first album in ages wherein he sounds like he might have something to lose. Cardinology wasn’t terribly well received, he’s been out of the game a little while, and he’s still sober, not to mention happily married to the only one-time teen pop princess who my mom says “never went slut.” Far removed from the enfant terrible responsible for legendary record-label squabbles, awesomely testy stage banter, and well-intentioned genre goofs like Rock ‘N’ Roll (2003), Adams wants to be taken seriously before 2011 comes to a close, and Ashes & Fire might be the last chance he gets to reboot his brand.
So maybe it’s unsurprising that Ashes plays it as safe as it does. It certainly sounds fantastic, fostering an exceedingly warm and intimate tone courtesy of Glyn Johns and whatever vintage recording gear he brought with him. Adams has surrounded himself with a crack pick-up band too, including longtime Tom Petty keyboardist Benmont Tench, pedal steel whiz Greg Leisz, and, on a handful of tracks, Norah Jones. But Ashes is ultimately a bit starved for the almighty factor of fun, consisting almost entirely of slow-tempo balladry which, while pretty, becomes exponentially duller and duller as the record progresses. Think of it as 41 minutes of the kind of quiet, slow songs that appeared towards the end of each of Cold Roses‘ (2005) two discs. And while Adams is unquestionably good at this stuff, it makes for a slight, monochromatic listen—especially considering how often you’ll actually tune in to the last few songs. Trust me on that one.
Ashes begins promisingly enough with “Dirty Rain,” an E-major lullaby with a memorable chorus, plenty of warm Hammond B-3, and a denouement akin to the Jackson Five’s “I’ll Be There.” Adams is in fine vocal form throughout, and the ensuing title track is really the only thing here that could be described as “jaunty.” “Ashes & Fire” is an upbeat swing in which Benmont Tench has appropriately transitioned from the organ to a rollicking barroom piano. But then the Norah Jones-abetted domestic strife of “Come Home” takes the energy down to dangerously turtle-ish levels. The album never entirely recovers.
The flaw here isn’t so much the quality of the songwriting as the full-on sameness of the presentation. “Invisible Riverside” in particular cries out for placement on another record where its slow-simmering blues will be applauded as a welcome change of pace versus merely another low-energy display. While Ashes & Fire doesn’t completely succumb to the sap that has plagued recent Adams albums until its final quarter (Mandy Moore sings backup on “Kindness,” you do the math), it serves little purpose aside from a good soundtrack for cuddling on the couch with your honey while longingly gazing at the stereo, reveling in domesticity.
It’s good to have the man back, and I’m hoping to not have to wait another three years until the next studio document drops. But he’s sanded away far too many edges. Ryan Adams has often been referred to as restless, unfocused, and maybe even a little bit infantile while still displaying frequent flashes of genius that make him impossible to write off (Cold Roses indeed), but Ashes & Fire might mark the first time he could ever been described as simply dull.