Ryan Adams – Ashes and Fire (PAX-AM/Columbia)

By Mark Youll | 21st October, 2011 | album reviews |

Ryan Adams

Ashes and Fire

Record label: PAX-AM/Columbia

Release date: October 2011

Verdict: *****

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It’s hard to conceive that it’s been ten years since Ryan Adams released an album quite as responsive as this one. And yet, not even the shapely classic Gold - his real breakthrough and Grammy-nominated second solo record from 2001 – had the odd fortune to pick at his personal life in such a way as to draw real brilliance from what has been a deranged decade for Adams, filled with failed and new-found love, a heavy battle with drug addiction and some variable album releases, in a way as to recover what could be this, his finest album to date.

Whereas the success of Gold flipped between the sort of stomping Tennessee twang Adams had been perfecting since his earliest recordings with alt-country crew Whiskeytown, and the warm and weepy melancholia that broke his solo career (presenting him as more Parsons than Petty), it’s the latter here that solely stimulates this stunning set.

“There is an aura of real restraint, with Adams undisguised and at his most reflective lyrically.”

On first impact, Ashes and Fire is lost to its own minimal momentum, or a craving for a change in pace that most ballad-heavy records of this ilk give off. And yet what ultimately surfaces from within the rattling acoustic guitars and buttery double basslines that lead in and lay under the likes of Dirty Water, the joyous Save Me (complete with wispy pedal-Steel and Norah Jones vocal harmonies), or the thumping waltz-time drums fixed to the title track, is an aura of real restraint, with Adams undisguised, and at his most reflective lyrically.

If Ashes and Fire’s tender tread momentarily slips, it’s down to the bouncier Chains of Love, a song which, not unlike the album’s big single Lucky Now, resembles the kind of organ-swirling, reverb-slapped songs Springsteen continuously coughed up during the 1980s. Elsewhere, Invisible Riverside adopts a more robust and lazy feel, washed over with electric piano and a wispy Wah-wah solo as to reinforce Adams’ lofty vocal ambitions.

But its the record’s more divested moments, during songs like Rocks or the album’s highly sensitive and emotive climax I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say, that Adams’ genius as a songwriter and vocalist transcends even his own former glories, billing Ashes and Fire, if not his most memorable record of the decade, then most certainly his most moving.

Mark Youll