Few artists have tested their audience’s patience to quite the same lengths as Ryan Adams in recent times. Undoubtedly one of his generation’s most gifted songwriters, Adams has often been found guilty of a failure to locate the edit button on his output, but after a lengthy absence from music retailer’s shelves since 2008’s critically-panned 'Cardinology', he’s back from semi-retirement and he’s ditched The Cardinals to release Ashes and Fire, his first solo record since 2005.
The Ryan Adams and the Cardinals experiment peaked on its first release, 'Jacksonville City Nights' in 2005 and got gradually worse until the ghastly Cardinology with its telegraphed whimsy. 'Ashes and Fire' begins encouragingly with 'Dirty Rain' a 99.9% DNA match with some of the better moments from his career defining albums 'Gold and Heartbreaker'. The title track 'Ashes and Fire' is the album’s peak with Adams in fine vocal form to deliver a song that rouses the raw essentiality that saw him adorn the walls of many-a-nose ringed teenage girl’s bedroom in the early noughties.
There’s a slight lull in the middle of this release, with a couple of listless snail-paced ballads that shoot for but miss the emotional punch of, say, 'Please Do Not Let Me Go' from 'Love is Hell', but even they aren’t dreadful, perhaps owing to veteran producer Glen Johns, who seems to have reined in Adams’ tendency to overegg his alt-country pudding. This new-found restraint showcases a welcome return to the poise and craft of the precocious songwriting of Adams’ youth. There’s no slapstick “Magick” or “Halloween Head” moment to divert attention away from an album that is as focused as any of the new school of alt-country troubadours (Leftwich, Pearson et al).
The album recovers from its slump with 'Invisible Riverside', a track that would sit snugly alongside Cold Roses’ 'Magnolia Mountain' or 'Easy Plateau'. The first single 'Lucky Now', too, recalls better times with the delicate, emotive qualities of Adams’ songwriting given room to manifest themselves, unlike the telegraphed, syrup-laden harvest of the past 5 years. By the time Adams signs off with a by-now trademarked breathy jugular-troubling piano number, 'I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say', Adams has completed his return to the singer-songwriter power table - presumably with Justin ‘Bon Iver’ Vernon at the head of the table, carving the nut roast.
Without a metal jam or a second disc in sight, Adams is in rude health with Ashes of Fire, an imperfect but taut collection of songs that justify a long-suffering fan’s patience.
Ryan, you have our ears again.