Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire (Pax-Am/Columbia/Sony)

My last few encounters with Ryan Adams haven’t been particularly pleasant.  I saw him perform live with his band The Cardinals at Auckland’s Bruce Mason Centre in 2007 and found the experience most frustrating. Ryan and the band were virtually invisible up on the barely-lit stage and at one point Adams viciously berated an audience member who dared request a song he didn’t want to play. A few weeks before that I had the opportunity to interview Ryan on the phone to help promote the show. It seemed like he wanted to be doing anything else except talking on the phone to a music journalist. He was distracted and rude.

This is a shame because I’ve been a fan of Adams’ since the first time I heard his first solo album, 2000’s Heartbreaker. I’d also seen him in concert before…at a festival in Austin, Texas, and he was fantastic. Something was obviously troubling the prolific songwriter. As it turns out that something was an affliction called Meniere’s disease, a condition that affects the hearing and sense of balance. Couple that with a wicked case of tinnitus, and a superhuman work schedule and it’s no wonder Ryan was in a bad mood.

Fortunately for him (and us), Ryan Adams has taken some time off. Not that he’s been laying around. Since his last shows with The Cardinals in 2009 he’s gotten married to Mandy Moore, released an album of previously recorded tunes, written a couple of poetry books and plays a few solo gigs.

Sufficiently rested, Ryan is back with an album of newly-written material called Ashes & Fire. To cut to the chase, it’s most likely his best, most personal work since Heartbreaker.

The Cardinals are gone (save for Neal Casal who shows up on two tracks) and in their places is the rhythm section of British drummer Jeremy Stacey and Black Keys’ bassist Gus Seyffert along with Norah Jones on piano, The Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench on organ and pedal steel virtuoso Greg Leisz. Ryan handles most of the guitar work and Mandy and Norah chime in on backing vocals.

The album was produced by Glyn Johns, father of Ethan, who produced Heartbreaker. Glyn himself has quite a resume, having worked with everyone from The Beatles to Bob Dylan. The resulting sound is mellow…Ryan’s acoustic guitar starts just about every song. Some have compared the album to early 70s Dylan, but I think James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James album is closer to the sound and the spirit.

Ryan Adams opens up and pours his heart out over 11 songs. Most deal with his own insecurities, vulnerabilities and fears.  “I used to have the goods” he sings in Invisible Riverside, “I feel like somebody I don’t know”  he laments on Lucky Now and on Rocks he exclaims, “I’m just a shadow”, before realizing that “the day is dawning”.

Adams’ vocals are heartfelt and honest and the musicians backing him add just the right embellishments to his songs…a touch of piano here from Norah, a swirl of the organ from Benmont and the cry of the pedal steel from Greg.

Ryan Adams may have had some demons to battle in the past, but it sounds like he has won those battles and come out the other side a better man, and a better songwriter, for it. I’m actually looking forward to seeing him perform again. I’m sure the lights will be brighter.

Marty Duda

Click here to listen to Chains Of Love from Ashes & Fire