Ryan Adams‘ hiatus from music lasted less than two years (the amount of time most active bands take between albums), but felt much longer due to the increasingly wandering nature of his records. Cardinals III/IV may have been killer, but was all over the place (not to mention it was recorded in 2005) and Orion was a half serious attempt at a sci-fi metal album. There were good tunes on both works, yet it had been quite some time since the prolific singer-songwriter had recorded something that was straight-up alternative country. Easy Tiger and Cardinology both had moments of rusticity, but they also had “Halloweenhead” and “Magick”, while prior album 29 was more rooted in eerie piano than slide guitar, despite backwoods epics like “Carolina Rain” and the Grateful Dead-influenced title track.
That makes his latest release, 13th studio album Ashes & Fire, the most country thing he’s done since 2005’s Jacksonville City Nights. But unlike that record, which showcased complex southern narratives and loads of peddle steel and strings courtesy of backing band The Cardinals, Ashes & Fire sees Adams using minimalist guitar creak and the textured flourishes of Tom Petty keyboardist Benmont Tench to spin songs that are less about plot and more about confession, even if the words only completely make sense to himself and whoever he’s talking to. It’s as haunting as 2004’s Love Is Hell, but, at only 11 tracks, much more focused both lyrically as well as musically. In the past, Adams often vomited strange images onto the page without much thought (“bullets from a candy gun”, anyone?), but on opener “Dirty Rain”, he remains visually economical with memories of a coat filled with bullet holes and stars exploding with gunfire while Tench’s organ softly caterwauls in the background.
The sonic breeze increases its pace on the title track, with Tench’s ivories kicking into saloon piano mode as Adams mixes romantic collections with images of natural disaster. His voice is more upbeat and the instrumentation is a tad heavier, and it’s a trend that continues throughout the album. Every third track or so sneaks in a dash more of musical sweetening than its predecessors. “Do I Wait” plugs in a flurry of ethereal, electric guitar that contrasts nicely with the hushed drum brushes and sparse strings of “Rocks”, while “Save Me” layers on angelic backing vocals from Norah Jones and wife Mandy Moore (Jones also contributes twinkling piano elsewhere on the record). Adams clearly thought about the track sequencing, allowing the album to breathe. Where the equally quiet 29 grew sluggish in spots, Ashes & Fires remains compelling throughout thanks to its peaks and valleys.
First single “Lucky Now” captures Adams at his most majestic, a mid-paced meditation on both the passing of his former bandmate, Cardinals bassist Chris Feinstein, and his own frenetic past struggles with addiction. Adams reportedly turned the lyrics of the song inward after a first draft was too explicit. In the final rendition, he relies on subtle imagery to convey two things at once. “Waiting outside while you find your keys/like bags of trash in the blackening snow/city of neon and toes that freeze/we’ve got nothing and nowhere to go” brings to mind the singer’s own demons as well as the simple act of remembering someone who’s gone. Because Adams took the time to edit himself, the song stands as one of the more powerful things he’s written. It’s comforting to know that despite being older, married, and sober, Adams shows no signs of slowing down. He’s just taking his time.
Essential Tracks: “Lucky Now”, “Dirty Rain”, and “Do I Wait”
Feature artwork by Drew Litowitz.