For the past three years, Ryan Adams has been in a state of semi-retirement, having taken an extended break from performing live and releasing proper albums, though he didn’t by any means diminish the pace of his output. In the years that followed his last proper release, 2008’s Cardinology, Adams launched his own record label, Pax-Am, through which he offered up some limited edition singles, a vinyl-only heavy metal concept album under the name Orion, and an extended set of Cardinals outtakes titled III/IV. In between those releases, he wrote a book and spent some time just being a husband, occasionally hijacking wife Mandy Moore’s Twitter feed. But retirement for a musician in his mid-’30s is simply not a pattern that’s meant to hold, and Adams has re-emerged with Ashes & Fire, his leanest, most focused album in more than half a decade.
There’s a back-to-basics feel about Ashes & Fire, and a rootsy earnestness that’s always been a defining characteristic of Adams’ best songs, though not necessarily all of them. Adams is just as prone to dropping a goofy stadium rocker like “Halloweenhead” as he is a collection of Neil Young-style folk rock like Gold. Ashes & Fire, on the other hand, is neither burdened by unnecessary and confusing stylistic shake-ups, nor is it the kind of epic, sprawling statement to which Adams is so frequently prone. It’s a simpler, more subdued album of gorgeous acoustic ballads, string-laden country rockers and sublime melodies.
The simple, rustic strums of “Dirty Rain” open the album with a hushed kind of warmth, inviting the listener in for a more intimate collection of songs that sound familiar, in the best way possible. Before long that soft, acoustic opening transitions into a soulful chorus rich with soulful Hammond and piano, and a stellar vocal performance from Adams. Next up is the waltzing title track, a piano-driven highlight that’s more Dylanesque than he’s ever sounded, but exactly the twang-inflected, streamlined alt-country sound that characterizes Adams at his strongest.
Much like Heartbreaker, Ashes & Fire leans heavy on ballads, and the ones on display here, while not quite as anguished or vulnerable as his debut album’s, are nonetheless lovely. “Rocks,” in particular, stands out for its introduction of elegantly arranged strings beneath Adams’ gentle croon. And “Kindness,” while one of the album’s slower songs, lays on thick and comforting layers of keyboards for more of a slight gospel touch. Yet in those few moments when Adams raises the tempo, it never feels forced or awkward. There are no ill-fitting hard rock songs, but rather a handful of electric songs that complement their muted counterparts with grace and breathing room. “Chains of Love,” while the album’s shortest song, is not at all short on ideas, with Adams’ electric guitar jangle pairing beautifully with a lush swell of strings. And first single “Lucky Now” features a sing-songy rise-and-fall verse that ultimately eases gently into a climactic bridge that recalls the dramatic harmonies of Fleetwood Mac.
In the time Ryan Adams spent vacationing from performing full-time, he in no way shied away from the schizo jumble of projects that he frequently juggled in the past. Yet now that he’s made a proper return with Ashes & Fire, it’s as if he managed to get many of those nagging, superfluous ideas out of his system in time to yield merely a concise and cohesive set of music. Ashes & Fire sounds more free and relaxed than anything Adams has released in a long time, which is exactly what makes it an unqualified success.
Stream: Ryan Adams – “Lucky Now”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.