Review Summary: Back to basics from Adams, but lacking the precociousness of 'Heartbreaker'.
Ryan Adams is a controversial figure - exuding the persona of a rock-n-roll wild-child who is actually closer to 40 (a Billy Joe Armstrong for the alt-country scene), most of the albums he has made in the last ten years have been subjected to critical panning but at the same time have garnered cult adoration from his many fans. His acoustic, yearning 2000 debut Heartbreaker and its more commercial follow-up Gold established him as both a critical and popular success, before he fell into obscurity with a series of un-commercial, tormented records that lost him critical favour, not helped by an interview style often perceived as annoying, and displaying a distinct air of boyish arrogance.
It has always been the case, however, that Adams has talent abound to justify his slightly abrasive rock-n-roll persona, and that the criticism that he has attracted since 2003 is highly aggressive mostly unjustified (pitchforkmedia.com can’t stand him!). In fact, in his ‘lost’ period, he produced two of his very best records - 2004’s dark, brooding masterpiece Love is Hell and 2005’s more upbeat Cold Roses. Both sprawling double albums, these showed Adams to be capable of writing rock songs of genuine emotional depth and striking melodic character, as well as not being pigeonholed into the alt-country genre of his first two albums.
Now to the point. Whilst Ashes and Fire, fundamentally a welcome return to his soulful acoustic roots (just like Neil Young released Harvest Moon as a return to the country-feel of Harvest), has its moments of brilliance, it can neither rival Heartbreaker’s gentle, poignant feel, neither can it match the striking sincerity and catharsis of Love is Hell. Here we find Adams somewhere in between the two, showing he is able to still write a lovely tune, but lacking in honesty and sincerity, and straying too far into that middle-of-the-road ‘adult rock’ category that so easily plagues modern country singers striving for credibility. Adams has shown in the past that he is capable of greatness - but Ashes and Fire, for all its charm, feels like a half-arsed effort in many places and lacks the spark that originally made the singer great.
Examples of unnecessary mush include ‘Come Home’, a pleasant but lyrically banal effort that sounds like a toned down X-factor ballad. ‘Dirty Rain‘ is more classic Adams, with a touch of Neil Young about it, but it isn’t particularly original and doesn’t compare to his earlier, more idiosyncratic work. ‘Rocks‘ is more promising - an updated James Taylor-style guitar-picker, with some touching lyrical turns (‘I’m just another shadow in the stream, that’s been washed away after all these years’), and the single ‘Lucky Now’ (‘love can mend your heart, but only if you’re lucky now’) is a nicely-crafted country-pop effort.
Ashes and Fire doesn’t have a great number memorable moments, and is punctuated by that old singer-songwriter faux-angst that Adams has been accused of in the past - as such it isn’t as musically striking nor as genuinely heartfelt as some of his earlier work. However, it does hold promise - and may signify that old chestnut ‘the return to form‘ for the singer-songwriter. Let’s have some more of this please - but better.