Review Summary: Adams' solo debut deserves the high praise it has received over the years.
Ryan Adams is clearly a bit of a douchebag - but a loveable douchebag. Despite the stories of storming off stage, obnoxious interviews, and self-indulgent metal concept albums (it's actually not too bad!), you can't help but grow to love his smoothly crafted country melodies, his brash but tuneful singing voice, and the directness and confidence of his lyrics. Adams has never ventured far beyond the boundaries of 'alt-country' music (apart from in the aforementioned metal album Orion), but since his solo debut he had become darker, more brooding and more intense. This move divided opinion, and his consecutive double albums Love Is Hell and Cold Roses provoked some of the most diverse reviews I've ever seen, ranging from 'work of genius' to 'pompous nonsense.' Listening to his latest release, 'Ashes and Fire', recalls 'Heartbreaker', his debut, and this move is no doubt intentional. Though not as strong as his debut album, 'Ashes and Fire' succeeds capturing some of the elements that made Heartbreaker such a fantastic album, and the latter is worth revisiting.
With Gillian Welch and David Rawlings chugging along in the background, and Emmylou Harris adding her husky harmonies to 'Oh My Sweet Carolina', one can be in no doubt about Adams' country-rock credentials - he is not some young pretender to the scene, but a genuinely sincere country-singer through and through. However, you don't even need to know who guests on the album to demonstrate this - just listen to the songs. The opening track, 'An argument with David Rawlings Concerning Morrissey', is exactly what it says on the tin. It is not only an extremely bold move to begin a solo debut album with a snippet of studio chat, but it succeeds in introducing Adams' own distinctive brand of brash confidence and good-time musical attitude. It might strike some as frivolous, but it does really show how comfortable Adams is in the studio, and with his own songs.
Now to the songs themselves. The album is remarkably consistent without being 'samey', and a listen from beginning to end takes one through the entire country-rock spectrum, from rollicking rock n roll ('To Be Young', 'Shakedown On 9th Street') to sweet, romantic ballads ('My Winding Wheel', 'Damn Sam I Love A Woman That Rains') to brooding blues ('Bartering Lines'). What stands out overwhelmingly is Adams' sense of place, and the love he has for the city and the US in general - this can be found on all his albums from Heartbreaker onwards. Here, it is best seen on the frankly outstanding 'Oh My Sweet Carolina', which manages to be both heartfelt and straightforward without falling into cliché - it's a thoughtful ballad about the concept of home that starts off as a whisper and ends as a full-blown, triumphant country-rock song. 'My Winding Wheel' is a rousing Dylanesque love song, and the biggest single, 'Come Pick Me Up' is a direct and uplifting statement of '*** it, I don't care.' It embodies all that is good about Adams - his carefree attitude and lyrical honesty is captured without sacrificing musical quality.
Adams has convincing country credentials, and the arrangements on Heartbreaker suit the songs perfectly, doubtless down to the skills Welch and Rawlings for much of it. Simple and effective, piano blends organically with picked guitar and the essential gorgeous pedal-steel countermelodies. Adams' voice is pushed to the front of the mix, right in your face - rough and often without much reverb, there is no doubt of his abilities as a singer or as a craftsman of a great melody. Heartbreaker fully deserves the almost 'classic-album' status it has acquired over the years, and justifiably remains a firm fan and critic's favourite. For such a young musician, Adams' knowledge of country music and ability as a songwriter doesn't come across much clearer than on this record. He showed here that the rock and roll persona he created in the media in Whiskeytown
and afterwards could be supported with great, great music.