“Am I really who I was?” Ryan Adams asks on “Lucky Now,” in a moment that seems to speak for Ashes & Fire as a whole. He sounds like he’d really like to be. Comparisons to his first, highly-praised album Heartbreaker have been trotted out since the album’s release, which should give you pause, because resorting to singer-songwritery schtick at this point is not a sign of revival. You can’t go home again. Based on the way the album asserts itself, this is Adams’ Time Out of Mind moment (in one-third of Bob Dylan’s time!). Except while there’s plenty of weepy pedal-steel, ersatz saloon piano, and a few really excellent, near-transcendent moments, Ashes & Fire is a Ryan Adams album, so you’ll still wonder how a few of these songs ever got past the cutting-room floor.
The first two tracks, however, are solid. The eponymous track’s unexpected rhythmic accents, unusual rhyme structure, and driving beat sound like a lost cut from Blonde On Blonde. Then, we’re hit with the cloying, predictable “Come Home,” which is where the unfavorable Heartbreaker comparisons begin. The whole album seems stuck between Adams’ best two periods of work, unwilling to commit to either. The quieter numbers come off as impersonal, thanks to Glyn Johns’ uninspired production, and there just aren’t enough high-energy songs to carry the album through — too much ashes, not enough fire. No, this isn’t Ryan Adams the effortlessly rocking troubadour of 2004-2005; it isn’t even the novelty Ryan Adams of Rock N’ Roll, Cardinology, and his more recent metal noodling. And alas, despite its many understated tunes, a Heartbreaker it ain’t either.
To be fair, Adams has never been one to defy convention, but Ashes & Fire feels more like an acquiescence than anything else he’s ever done. Its total lack of affectation is the album’s biggest problem. It feels like it’s sequenced to fit some expectation of what types of songs an album should have. “Chains of Love” is the album’s succinct pop song, and it completely fails to explore the restricting aspect of the metaphor. “Dirty Rain” is the jazzy, inviting opener. “Kindness” is the sweet duet (barely: Adams’ beau doesn’t add much more than some breathy harmony over the choruses). “Lucky Now” reestablishes his singer-songwriter cred by sounding exactly like Jeffrey Foucault’s “Ghost Repeater.” “Invisible Riverside” is the inevitable song about a mythopoetic California that never existed.
Some of the lyrics are just awful. “Kindness don’t ask for much but an open mind,” goes the chorus to the gentrified country duet. Blah blah, shanti, shanti, tell that to Occupy Wall Street. He sings about the comfort of home on the saccharine “Come Home”: “Nobody has to cry to make it seem real/ Nobody has to hide the way that they feel.”
Although it appears to have done his music no favors, Adams has gotten clean — props to him — and this is his first drug-free effort that actually sounds like a Ryan Adams album. Unfortunately, the fuck-all attitude and musical self-immolation appear to have gone out with the bathwater. Someone needs to turn him on to that scene in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes: “Now that you’ve quit,” Tom Waits says to Iggy Pop, reaching for a cigarette, “you can have one.”