Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The King of Sad Bastard Songs All Grown Up: Ryan Adams’ Ashes & Fire

The ever prolific king of sad bastard songs, Ryan Adams, has emerged from his “retirement” with new material. Since announcing his hiatus from music in 2009, little was heard from the artist. By 2010, we saw Orion, a metal endeavor, released only on vinyl. That same year also marked the release of III/IV, the shelved sessions from the 2007 Easy Tiger recording with the Cardinals. While I respected Adams’ genre-bending talents, I found the latter album just too loud. (Yes, I’m 70-years-old and can’t stand those kids and their guitars.)

That being said, I didn’t know what to expect when I was forwarded an NPR First Listen of Ashes and Fire (PAX-AM/Capitol). About thirty seconds in, however, I was hooked. Adams makes a full come back with this signature country, Americana mix. Ashes and Fire is Adams’ presenting himself stripped down and soulful. Probably the most refined album of his career. The title track and especially the opener, “Dirty Rain,” contains that slow, familiar, twang evident in Adams’ earlier albums. Ashes and Fire is a solid autumnal delivery that perfectly matches the timing of the album’s release.

Despite the usual familiarity, though, there is something different about this ‘new’ Ryan Adams: notably the maturity and his overall disposition. While the album is reminiscent of Easy Tiger and Heartbreaker (2000), it possesses a more controlled delivery. The album was produced by Glyn Johns at the Sunset Sound Factory in Hollywood. Johns is best known for his work with The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton, to name a few. Keeping things in the family, it was Johns’ son, Ethan, who produced Adams’ Heartbreaker (2000), Gold (2001), and 29 (2005). Perhaps it was the seasoned fatherly influence on the album, or maybe Adams’ own ripening, but the album has a greater sense of maturity in it. The instrumentals are not excessive, but instead are perfectly timed and delivered. Nothing takes away from the front man, even with Norah Jones’ subtle piano and vocal appearances; we still know it is Adams’ album.

Ryan Adams
One of the other distinctive qualities of this release is that it seems the 36-year-old maverick of sadness has lightened up a bit. While still lyrically mellow, Adams’ customary mournfulness that had graced previous albums doesn’t dominate on Ashes and Fire. One doesn’t hear that hopeless frustration that accompanies such Adams’ classics as “Come Pick Me Up” and “I Taught Myself How to Grow Old. This leads me to believe that Adams’ recent marriage and domestication (with actress Mandy Moore who actually lends her vocals to the album) is maybe the cause of this new outlook. The complexities of life and relationships are still evident in such tunes as “Kindness” and “Do I Wait?” The only thing missing on this album is bitterness, which has been replaced with warmth, forgiveness, and optimism: “Kindness can cure a broken heart / Honey are you feeling kind? / Do you believe in love?”

While I do love the new album, there will be a part of me that misses the beautiful devastation of the good old days. Who doesn’t like to sit and torture themselves with “Come Pick Me Up” when pining for a lover? However, I am thrilled for Adams‘more mature tone, a controlled delivery, and an overall fresh perspective. (Perhaps we should all try retirement?) I welcome back an all grown up Ryan Adams.

– Laura Warner is a librarian, researcher and aspiring writer living in Toronto. She is currently based in the Canadian Broadcasting Centre’s Music Library.

1 comment:

  1. I agree -- a nice return to form. He's coming to town in December! (Toronto that is)