Ryan Adams is the genius critics love to hate: too prolific, too much of a chameleon, too facile, too tortured, too sensitive, too strident, too self-involved, too shallow, the sum of influences he can never hope to equal, the victim of early success he can never hope to top — an avalanche of dismissive put-downs that come as easily to critics as songwriting seems to come to Adams. Is it any wonder everyone’s favorite critical target decided to step away from music in early 2009 and try his hand at less public creative pursuits, namely writing a pair of small press books that were hungrily devoured by his hardcore fans while being largely ignored by the mainstream media. Adams being Adams, he also self-released a couple of albums that he had recorded during the Easy Tiger sessions in 2006: Orion, a limited edition, vinyl-only, heavy metal, science fiction concept album, and III/IV, a two-CD set of outtakes featuring his longtime backing band the Cardinals that was rejected as uncommercial by his former label Lost Highway. In other words, Adams put out more art during his hiatus than some artists manage in a decade.
What then to expect from his “comeback” album Ashes and Fire? Recording for his own label, PaxAm, working with legendary producer/engineer Glyn Johns (he’s recorded the Beatles, the Stones and the Who, among dozens of others), playing with friends like Benmont Tench, Norah Jones, and his wife Mandy Moore, Adams has delivered the most confident and consistent album of his career, a gentle meditation on love and loss, sadness and contentment. Superficially, it bears some resemblance to his solo debut Heartbreaker: country influences are there if you listen for them and the subject matter is often similar. But, really, this album is unlike any other Adams has released. Where Hearbreaker mixed tearjerkers like the sublime “Oh My Sweet Carolina” with the rave-up “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)”, the bluesy “Bartering Lines” and the full-blooded country rock of “Come Pick Me Up”, Ashes and Fire is resolutely monotone, a set of songs in shades of dark blue with only slight variations of mood and tempo. This is a strategy that contains enormous artistic risk, chiefly that the result will be a snooze-inducing bore. But Adams’ gift for melody is so sure and his vocals are so deeply felt that, if you have a sympathetic ear for the work of confessional singer-songwriters, it’s more likely to keep you up all night with repeated listenings than put you to sleep.
The album leads off with “Dirty Rain”, a musical trailer for a 1950s film noir that doesn’t exist. The music is a moody blend of Adams’ acoustic guitar, Jones’ piano, and Tench’s electric piano, while the imagery flashes by in quick cuts. In scene one, our hero steps out of the shadows onto a dark and empty street: “Last time I was here it was raining / It isn’t raining anymore / The streets were drowned, the waters waning / All the ruins washed ashore / I’m here, just looking through the rubble / Tryin’ to find out who we were…” Scene two, we flash back to his femme fatale: “Last time I was here you were waiting / You’re not waiting anymore / The windows broke and the smoke escaping / Books scattered across the floor / The church bells ringing through sirens / And your coat full of bullet holes…” Sirens and bullet holes — what’s happening here? Because this is just a trailer, we’re never exactly sure. This isn’t a sweeping cinematic story song like Dylan’s “Idiot Wind”, just a series of shots that create a feeling and let the listener fill in the blank spaces. By the end of the song, when the heroine’s “eyes were filled with terror / And tears from the gasoline / As the stars exploded with gunfire”, we know things haven’t ended well, but who’s dead and who’s alive isn’t clear. What is clear is a fine metaphor for the brutal end of an intense relationship.
The title track lifts the tempo a notch, with more aggressive piano from Tench, a solid backbeat from drummer Jeremy Stacey, and Gus Seyffert’s tasteful bass and guitar all playing against Adams’ hearty acoustic strumming. But the story’s more or less the same, perhaps picked up at an earlier point: “As he stared past the fire / The hunger to leave, well it gnawed / His poor heart alive.” There are some beautifully evocative images here, like a wind that “was suddenly sweeter than Roosevelt pie” and a woman’s “cool and silvery eyes”, but once again, the story has no beginning or end, just a few bits of middle. The gently optimistic “Come Home” slows things down to a crawl, with a quivering, near-falsetto vocal from Adams, gorgeous harmonies from Jones and Moore, and some deeply yearning pedal steel accompaniment by Greg Leisz. “Rocks” adds a string quartet to the mix, and lyrics as simple and oblique as a Zen koan: “I am not rocks / I am not rain / I’m just another shadow in the stream / That’s been washed away / After all these years / I am not rocks in the river / I am birds singing, tears falling / And the day is dawning.” Can it be a coincidence that as Adams strips his emotions and music down to their most basic elements, he finds himself singing about water, fire, earth, and air?
A couple of songs, “Chains of Love” and the single “Lucky Now”, are built around more traditional hooks, with straightforward lyrics and catchy choruses, mixing an undercurrent of melancholy with a tentative optimism that feels cathartic when contrasted with the perpetual darkness of the rest of the material. But Adams waits for the final track, the gorgeous “I Love You But I Don’t Know What to Say”, to allow full-fledged hope and even faith to illuminate his deep blue mood: “When I met you / Clouds inside me parted / And all that light came shining through,” he sings, offering as direct a declaration of love as he has ever given on record. It’s a perfect finale to a near perfect album by a performer who seems, at least for the time being, to have learned to focus his wide-open talents on one narrow vein of material, and in the process has struck pure gold.