And so, with a sparse acoustic guitar part and that simple lyric Ryan Adams marks his return to music after a hiatus of nearly three years. "Ashes & Fire" is his first record since 2007's "Easy Tiger" and since he disbanded the Cardinals in 2009. (Last year's "III/IV" was actually recorded during the "Easy Tiger" sessions, and "Orion," a heavy metal record, was released on vinyl by his label, PAX-AM, and available only through the label's website.)
Ryan Adams is one of the most prolific songwriters working today, but he took a break from music in order to deal with personal issues. Those issues included some trouble with drugs and alcohol, and a bout with Meniere’s disease, an inner ear disorder that affects balance and can result in hearing loss. Adams did, in fact, lose some hearing in one ear, and recently told Rolling Stone that he had permanently lost some of the middle tones in one ear.
Now, married and with his personal life presumably in order, Ryan Adams has returned to music. Perhaps a little of that Disney magic has rubbed off on him (his wife, Mandy Moore, was the star of "Tangled"), because "Ashes & Fire" is one of his best records to date.
Adams has been a critic's darling and a critic's nemesis. He can be a brilliant songwriter and performer. But he can also be temperamental, and has produced some uneven records. "Ashes & Fire" is simply a solid singer-songwriter record. The emphasis here is on the songs and the vocals, less on the musicianship that marked his time with the Cardinals. That's certainly not to say the music fades into the background. Bringing in musicians like Norah Jones on piano and Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) on keyboards and the occasional Hammond B3, the band serves to underscore the lyrical content and the vocal performances, rather than taking the forefront.
Not surprisingly, Adams frequently mines the territory of heartbreak and loss, as on songs like "Lucky Now" when he sings: "The lights will draw you in/But the dark will bring you down/And the night will break your heart/But only/If you're lucky, now." Of course, this is familiar territory for Adams. But even at his most earnest, as on "Kindness" when he asks a lover, "Do you believe in love?" the lyrics are never clichéd or overly sweet.
The songs here are acoustic and often subdued. There are no rockers, with the title track being among the most upbeat of the songs on the record. And that's okay. "Ashes & Fire," like most Ryan Adams records, has a feel that is all its own. While a feeling of melancholy persists throughout, the record is never maudlin, even when wearing its heart on its sleeve.
And it even ends on a hopeful note, closing, almost as quietly as it began, with the wistful "I Love You But I Don't Know What to Say."