Earlier this year in London, this writer witnessed Ryan Adams perform an epic, awe-inspiring acoustic set that was as awesome as it was long. The man unfairly known for being a wild man and walking out of gigs sat us down for hours of classics from his vast catalogue and a songbook that could one day rival the length of Dylan’s collection. Even though he wasn’t promoting an album, this man had the sold-out strong crowd convinced he was back. Thank God the hiatus is over. Today’s best American singer/songwriter not named Bob, Springsteen or Harper, returns with his first full studio album since 2008 (not to count last year’s post-Cardinals break-up double disc delight of III/IV or the strong, metal concept album Orion).
Truthfully speaking however, Ryan’s always been here for years. Don’t call it an LL Cool J comeback. A true artist and writer never runs out of things to create. Now in 2011, at 36 years and 20 years in the industry-from his wonderful Whiskeytown beginnings, Ryan Adams truly becomes a solo-artist again with Ashes & Fire. A hot, slow burner of an album that is one of the deep-thinking singer’s most personal releases to date. Recorded in the ‘Sunset Sound Factory’ in Hollywood, Los Angeles, this top-scoring album could play on movie soundtracks all day with its epic beauty and inspired feeling. Produced by Glyn Johns (who gave The Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones some classics) Ryan hits the heights he did with the producers son Ethan who helped craft the classics Heartbreaker, Gold and 29.
This gifted artist presents us with 11 tracks of his genius in another classic, concise effort and there’s more. Iconic ‘Dear John’ collaborator Norah Jones returns Ryan’s favour (he penned one of her best tracks; Light As A Feather off her last album The Fall) by lending her smouldering, sweet, velvet vocals to three tracks – along with some tinkles of the old ivory. This strong collaborating tandem sounds so good Ryan told ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine in another life he’d “convince her to be in a band with me”. From the familiar depths of Come Home, the sweet beauty of Kindness and the “rescue blues” of Save Me, it’s clear to hear that these two should collaborate even more than they already have. This is evident right from their charismatic connection to Jones’ subtle but sublime contributions (she’s very much a part of this album just like she’s a part of Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi’s ‘Rome’ project). This is one ‘supergroup’ idea that sounds like it could save music.
As soon as this album opener Dirty Rain shows the vast expanse of Adams’ talents, it’s clear that this man who forayed into Heavy Metal and nice novel-writing never really left the studio or the acoustic guitar. It’s a welcome return and one with open arms, just like the upbeat title track which rises from the slow burning opening and shows us that this artist can seamlessly paint acoustic patterns of great range and depth in style. Rocks is another strong song that shows Ryan’s style and sound won’t be broken like sticks and stones, while Do I Wait and Chains Of Love make for a gorgeous mid-section to this album.
The depths of Invisible Riverside are clear to see in all their tranquil beauty, while the single Lucky Now harks back to Adam’s twenties and his time in New York. The feeling of a cold NYC Winter is truly evoked and captured from the “bags of trash in the blackening snow” to the “city of neon and toes that freeze”. Ryan saves the most atmospheric and epic for last with the deep, devotion of I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say. From this and the rest of the album that precursors this, it’s clear that fans who love Ryan know what to say in response to his grand return; ‘thank you’.