Review: Ryan Adams’ ‘Ashes & Fire’

Former Alt-country bad boy makes another predictably gentle record.

Raghav Mehta

Ryan AdamâÄôs post-speedball junkie career arc has been nothing if not steady. In fact, itâÄôs been painfully steady. His material has become so tempered and polished over the years that if youâÄôre still expecting another streak of tortured âÄúLove is HellâÄù period brilliance then youâÄôre either delusional or just havenâÄôt been paying enough attention.

âÄúAshes & Fire,âÄù AdamsâÄô first album since breaking it off with the Cardinals last year, is no exception.

Whether you want to blame sobriety (in his sixth year now) or Mandy Moore (the two got hitched in 2009), AdamsâÄô snot-nosed brashness and incessant genre-hopping that first defined him has never seemed more irrelevant. At this juncture, itâÄôs almost as if he pretends none of it ever even happened. Like much of his recent output, âÄúAshes & FireâÄù isnâÄôt really about making a splash or taking grand artistic leaps. ItâÄôs just good, carefully crafted songwriting through and through. Where previous releases could seem understated (âÄúCardinologyâÄù) or scatterbrain (âÄúEasy TigerâÄù), âÄúAshes & FireâÄù excels with some more well developed coherence. From the poppy sunshine of âÄúChains of LoveâÄù to the gentle strum of âÄúLucky Now,âÄù Adams has his formula down to a science and isnâÄôt interested in stepping out of bounds.

Solid songwriting, however, has never been AdamsâÄô problem. Everything that makes âÄúAshes & FireâÄù a successful record is exactly what keeps it from being an interesting record. If âÄúEasy TigerâÄù was Adams taking cues from Neil Young, consider âÄúAshes & FireâÄù his interpretation of James Taylor. It all culminates into something thatâÄôs much too quiet, too reserved and safe to leave a significant impact on its listeners.

Even when AdamsâÄô does have those powerful moments, he flounders lyrically, doling line after rhetorical line thatâÄôs on par with high school poetry: âÄúDo I want to say the things that I say when I know that they are wrong? / Do I wait here forever for you? / Could you ask me to?âÄù Not even the church house organs or Norah Jones (backing vox) can forgive such dull schmaltz like: âÄúIf youâÄôre so kind can you let down your hand / Will you try and understand when it goes wrong / Days come and gone and itâÄôs been said and been done / I will shelter you with my love and my forgiveness.âÄù    

AdamsâÄô latter-day musical sin is solipsism. HeâÄôs managed to remain relevant by being outrageously prolific (heâÄôs released 13 albums between now and 2000âÄôs âÄúHeartbreakerâÄù), but itâÄôs been years since the guyâÄôs produced anything truly remarkable. And even if he had greatness within his reach, his catalogâÄôs become so diluted and he’s lacked the very cojones that made him so endearing in the first place. That said, despite his past achievements, this is the Adams weâÄôll all remember in years to come. But given his consistency, he doesnâÄôt seem to really care. And whatâÄôs more Ryan Adams than that?

2 out of 4 stars