One man. One guitar. One microphone. Zero songs about Space Snakes.
The sighs of relief from Ryan Adams' fans on the release of 2011's Ashes & Fire could've registered on the Richter scale. It wasn't just that it was a great record but more they'd feared the "Alt-Country Wonderboy" (cough) had handed back his gun and Sheriff's star and rode off into the sunset forever. After all, he'd quit the Dionysian hellraisin' that bequeathed him outlaw infamy and, briefly, a Steve Austin bionic arm following a swandive off a Liverpool stage. He'd then broken up his band (the Cardinals) and married a Hollywood Starlet (Mandy Moore). Hell, by 2009, Adams seemed more intent on poetic musings and beard-stroking with his quill (Infinity Blues, Hello Sunshine) than melting kids' faces with his axe. Well, except that Heavy Metal, Sci-Fi concept odyssey about feuding intergalactic reptiles (Orion). Factor in health issues – tinnitus and the hearing / balance condition Ménière's disease – and Adams' was surely bound to become a mythological character for campfire tall tales.
No surprise then that when Ashes finally arrived it went Top 10 in the UK and US. It had a stripped-down, back-to-basics feel, confessional and closer in tone to the great American songbook tradition and wistful melodies of solo début Heartbreaker. Those who favoured their artists eternally tortured may've grumbled at Adams' renewed sense of blue-eyed optimism, but most grabbed it with both hands and hugged it like an old friend feared lost at sea. So, beat-up acoustic in tow, Adams headed out on his first, full solo tour for which iTunes Session offers a commendable, albeit waif-like souvenir. Granted these iTunes shenanigans are usually a corporate swizz to pick your pocket and run away laughing, but, given the intimate "Wait, did you hear a pin drop?" setting of Ryan and ol' faithful (his red, yellow 'n' green striped Rastafari six-string), this offers something slightly more appealing. It says "Recorded at Capitol Studios, LA" on the tin, but at times it sounds like he's playing in your front room. Best put the kettle on and lay out some sandwiches then ...
iTunes Session is unsurprisingly chiefly focused on Levi Lazarus' most recent opus but also dials up a few old friends plus one tempestuous stranger. Adams is on top form throughout. During opener "Dirty Rain" his vocal swoops, glides and soars like a man reborn. All Tom Waits' shaggy charm and swaggerin' romance on the sidewalk, "Last time I was here you were crying / You're not crying anymore." Both of Ashes' singles appear. "Lucky Now" sounds gloriously alive and heart-on-sleeve joyful here, its sweet melody now threatening to dive into Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World". Vocals to the fore, its tale of survival and redemption is both battleworn and bittersweet, "Are we really who we used to be?" Adams' ponders. Your memory'll have to paint in the original's lightning crack of an electric guitar solo though. Ashes' shiniest moment, the deceptively simple "Chains of Love" is still short 'n' sweet, a near perfect pop song. Stripping its original string-laden flourish diminishes none of its glowing chivalry and when Adams' wrestles those lines "Send me off to heaven / I've got nothin' but ti-iiime" he still sounds spookily like Liam Gallagher. The toe-tappin', front porch waltz of "Ashes & Fire" itself similarly burns bright despite shedding its studio trinkets. Adams' plays the song with vigour, urgency, and well, fire. A halfway flash of harmonica and it threatens to handshake the heavens.
With a back catalogue as rich as Adams', it would've been daft not to have cast the net beyond last summer. Thus the evocative, wistful "Houses on the Hill" from Whiskeytown's 1997 Strangers Almanac gets a worthy revival and sounds as sepia 'n' tear-stained as ever. We're also treated to a pair of beauties from Adams' revered Heartbreaker too. Fan favourite "Oh My Sweet Carolina" may lack Emmylou riding shotgun but it's still reassuringly breathtaking. It's played so close you can hear Adams shufflin' in his seat and when that harmonica finale breaks it darn blows your hair back. Be warned too the momentary pause between "Oh my sweet disposition...." and "...may you one day carry me home" may cause involuntary heart palpitations. "My Winding Wheel" also gets a good run of the yard. Whereas the original was breezy 'n' chipper, it's tougher 'n' gruffer here. Adams hammers it down with a chugga-chugga, freight train pace like he's about to miss the last bus home. "Buy a pretty dress / Wear it out tonight for any boy you think can outdo me" it dares. The big draw here though is the brooding take on Bob Mould's "Black Sheets of Rain" which recently flipper'd a 'Record Day Only' vinyl with "Heartbreak a Stranger". A prophetic tale of troubled consciences simmerin' beneath the surface with stormclouds on the horizon, "They're calling me back again". It sweeps a veil of darkness across this vista of blue skies.
iTunes Session is a gentle reminder, if one is needed, that Adams remains one of America's great songwriters. Fans will lap it up but it also comes recommended to those who have remained thus far oblivious to Adams troubadour talents. Admittedly at roughly thirty-minutes it's hardly essential and effectively exists purely as a helpful streetsign directing folk toward his Olympian heritage. But as a hit 'n' run, intimate, artist showcase, Session will have you applauding between numbers and readily swinging your wallets capwards by the end. As long as Adams keeps delivering these timeless treasures we should be willing to accept any number of diva tantrums, ramblings about cats, Black Metal and comic books and yes even cosmic concept albums about squabbling Space Snakes. All good things have their price.