Ryan Adams retreated from the spotlight. He buried himself in a band, The Cardinals, demanding so much that his name be taken off album covers and matinees, seeking something that he could not find. After that effort burned out, he left the game entirely. He pledged to his fans that he may never make another album. He described to said fans his devastation, as best he could, despite much-needed sobriety, and he revealed to them his unwanted conditions, obsessive-compulsive disorder and tinnitus. He found a lover. He married her. Most of us believed he was lost and gone for good.
He was not. With Ashes And Fire, his first true “solo” album since 2005’s 29, Adams reestablishes himself as one of his generation’s most talented, most honest, rawest voices. True Adams fanatics can connect dots, and can dance between the lines to discover whom he might be singing about at any given moment. But this record–produced by Glyn Johns, the father of Ethan Johns, who helmed the boards of Heartbreaker and Gold, two of Ryan’s most wonderful solo achievements, as well as Pneumonia, a departure, a fabulous one, for Adams’s old band Whiskeytown–is a statement of rebirth. It is a statement of self-acceptance. It is sad, in certain terms, as it is low-key and full of songs that may depress the untrained ear. It is also one of the finest albums this magnificent artist has ever put to tape.
Ryan Adams has long been accused, literally, accused, of being too prolific. He’s not in control, went so many criticisms. He can’t handle himself. He creates too much art.
How could such statements be in any way pejorative? How could such qualities in an artist be criticized? It is concrete lore amongst devoted fans of his music that some of his finest work has often gone unreleased. He did not want it that way. He would have released it all, had labels and economics allowed. One of his finest statements, 48 Hours, named after the timespan in which it was recorded, remains unreleased. All his true fans possess it, beyond legality. He does not mind. He allows his live shows to be “bootlegged” (see: archive.org), so long as they are treated with love and respect. He realizes the depths of his talent, and the endless productivity with which he was gifted. He does not understand wherefrom these gifts derive. But he allows them to flourish. With Ashes And Fire, his first true, new album in three years (an eternity in Adamsland), he has absorbed all of this knowledge, taken it in, and channeled it into a work of art that rivals the effect of his best.
Initial reviews and reactions have lain upon the door of Fire accusations of stumbling reassessment, of a talented musician finding his feet after some years off the map. These judgments are ludicrous. Many an observer agrees that Heartbreaker ranks among Ryan Adams’s best work, and now decry an album that embraces, willfully, that album’s cleavage to simplicity. To pure songcraft, softened aggressiveness, utter honesty. Ashes And Fire is not Heartbreaker. Few albums are. But what this newest release is is honest. It is heartfelt. It is the Ryan Adams everybody has asked Ryan Adams to be, for so long, throughout all legions of immersion into other styles (so bitterly described, so often, as “synthesis”), and it is, for what it is, fucking fantastic.
It is not a record designed for parties, unlike some of his other releases, some other works (Rock, ahem, N Roll). It is not an album crafted with, in mind, a particular style, like, say, the shoe-gazing, gut-wrenching “Britpop” of Love Is Hell. What it is is an LP of truth, of true romanticism, of a man finally grown addressing his past, a mottled past, with the awareness that happiness and real love are possible. With Ashes And Fire, Ryan is saying goodbye to a lifestyle that, while overdramatized by a parasitic press, did come close to deleting his life. His enormous, oversized heart. In recent interviews, Adams has acknowledged that The Cardinals, his friends, assembled musically in an effort to find and to accept himself, to push forward after a fall from a stage and a broken wrist that left him doubting his ability to play his beloved guitar, had expanded and developed beyond his initial desire. He wishes them well, and it is clear that the death of one of those Cardinals, bassist Chris Feinstein, affected him deeply. It is also clear that his dismissal of Feinstein’s predecessor, Catherine Popper, causes him great guilt. He claims now that each of his many songs (dating back to the late 1990s) involving the name “Rose” were in a way devoted to Popper, a talented musician whom (along with prior lead guitarist J.P. Bowersock, replaced that same summer, 2005, by capable and effective Neal Casal) he knows he treated badly.
He is lying, though, and lying through his teeth. Throughout his career, Adams has written songs about “Rose,” and each of those songs has been about not a lover, not some girl, but about himself. There are no songs on Ashes And Fire that address this metaphor, the delicate flower with which Ryan so obviously aligns himself. That is fine. He wrote those songs once, and they are out there for all of us to hear, forever. He wrote these songs now. And they are, if not palatable to all ears (though they should be), the sound, the song of a brilliant man and artist moving forward with a life that has not always been easy. That has never been easy, in fact, despite the adulation and sales and respect his best work has brought forth. The best of that work–and there is much work, and much of it qualifies for that adjective–will forever remain.
Ashes And Fire qualifies. Welcome back, Ryan. Go forth, and prosper. Those of us with ears, the kind that discern static from brilliance? We’ll be listening.
And give Mandy our love. Vinny Chase wasn’t good enough for her anyway.