reviews of the moment
— Ashes & Fire
Like Tom Waits, Ryan Adams will forever seem far older than his age. The life of the plucky, oftentimes brilliant singer-songwriter from Jacksonville has been like a movie cliché since he left the great alt-country band Whiskeytown. He’s outkicked his coverage with high-profile marriages, endured obscure medical afflictions and battled substance problems — all of which collected into the tattered set of perspectives that is his body of work. It hasn’t hindered his productivity, however. Since taking a step back from music in 2009 to collect himself, he’s put out more work in those short years than most could over a decade. A pair of limitedpress books accompanied a double-album of outtakes from the Easy Tiger sessions and a sci-fi, heavy metal concept record created as a lark. This was all done while he was supposed to be retired from music, but with the release of his 13th album Ashes & Fire last week, that notion can be put to rest. Without the Cardinals backing him, instead with help from friends Benmont Tench, Norah Jones and his wife Mandy Moore, Adams returns to the countrified sparseness of Whiskeytown’s Stranger’s Almanac with one of his most self-assured recordings ever. It doesn’t contain the immediate gratification that came with
Heartbreaker’s “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)” or Cardinology’s “Fix It,” but Ashes & Fire is a slow burner. The entire album is the moody amalgamation of Adams’ acoustic strum, Tench’s simmering electric organ and Jones’ pastoral piano notes. Each track only leans a few shades one direction or the other from the noir-ish opener “Dirty Rain,” and the closest he gets to the perfect amalgamation of rock and country that he hit upon with the Cardinals is during the title track, where lightly reverbed guitars and Jones’ piano swirl in a do-si-do, only to drop out entirely and isolate Adam’s trembling like the song’s subject. The lack of a single “grabber” on the album will no doubt kettle the fans who took to him after Easy Tiger, and for that reason, Ashes & Fire is likely to be the one that gets the nod for “most underappreciated” in his catalog.