Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Ashes & Fire - Ryan Adams
Ashes & Fire
SCQ Rating: 71%
When you see the stilted photograph of Adams checking his watch inside the sleeve of Ashes & Fire, it’s hard not to contemplate time. More specifically, that time Adams was photographed sitting with a cigarette and a watch clearly stating 4:20 – a shot ultimately chosen for his record cover. Now that’s all kinds of ironic when you consider how heavily Easy Tiger was touted as Adams’ sober album. But then so was III/IV, the Cardinals-assisted archival release that organized a bevy of tunes ultimately shelved in favor of Easy Tiger’s folky ruminations. With all of these records showing lineage to Adams getting clean, one has to wonder why Cardinology - dropped smack-dab in the middle of this string of releases - got left out of the PR-context game.
So what’s new on Adams’ third "sober record" in four years? Well, for one thing, he’s committed; no more cigarettes, no unhealthy band dynamics, no stressful press obligations and, as far as I can see, no nerdy marijuana shout-outs. Likewise, the troubadour has sidestepped the impulses that usually resulted in out-of-place oddities like ‘Halloweenhead’ or ‘The Sadness’. In place of his contentious influences and ADD behavior, Ashes & Fire offers an about-face on aging that most songwriters in their mid-thirties would prefer to remain in denial of. Miles from the artful albeit strained conceptual vibe of 29, Adams’ previous rite-of-passage LP, this new collection streamlines his penchant for acoustic ditties with universal lyrics and, production-wise, an uninterrupted quiet. Compositionally, Adams remains well-versed and prepared for song-craft of this focus; I mean, how many of his deep-cut highlights – ‘Amy’, ‘Cry On Demand’, ‘Sylvia Plath’, 'I See Monsters' and ‘Oh My God, Whatever, Etc.’ – arrive bearing his intimate knack for introspection? But where those songs always acted as moments of clarity realized amidst a hangover (be it emotional or physical), the whole forty minutes of restraint on Ashes & Fire offer little in contrast. Without a scalding track of biting lyricism or tight riffs, Ashes & Fire’s wealth of tender reflections only knows how to mellow.
The songwriting remains inspired, even if one suspects that Adams has penned these songs for NPR-approved mass consumption. After a rousing opening couplet of ‘Dirty Rain’ and the title track, Ashes & Fire digs under the duvet folds for the comforting balladry of ‘Come Home’ and ‘Invisible Riverside’. Still, it takes the record’s best moment to illustrate just what’s wrong with Ashes & Fire; as ‘Do I Wait’ presents a rare glimpse of conflicted emotion and – even rarer – an electric guitar solo, it startles the record with renewed purpose. There was a time when Adams’ conviction couldn’t be questioned but, for all of his newfound focus and accessibility, Ashes & Fire doesn’t sound subdued because of its focused palette. It sounds subdued because Adams’ approach rarely deviates, as if he’s so complacent he can't help going through the motions. So it’s effortless, yes, and listenable too. By Adams' standards though, "listenable" roughly equates to "inconsequential".