I've been listening to Ashes & Fire relentlessly for a few of weeks now, and I've been trying my damnedest to figure out just how to write about this thing, but it's been difficult because the record is a bit of a dichotomy. Musically and vocally, this record is candid and earnest which is pretty standard fare when it comes to Ryan Adams records, but there's a halcyon solemness that, while archetypal for Ashes & Fire, is atypical for Ryan Adams.
This record's the same, but it's different. It's the same, because when I listen to it I hear bits of Heartbreaker, Love is Hell and 29, pieces of Gold and Jacksonville City Nights, and the overall tone is congenial with Easy Tiger, the Follow the Lights ep, and Cardinology, but still, it's different, because even though it kind of sounds like of all of these records, when I just listen to Ashes & Fire instead of analyzing it's subtle intricacies, it doesn't really sound like any of the aforementioned records.
It's the same, because like nearly every other Ryan Adams song, the songs on Ashes & Fire are all about love and loss and failure, but it's different, because wherein the past Adams accepted the inevitable cruelties of life as cold, hard, unavoidable and insurmountable truths; brilliant songs ensconced in darkness and acquiescence, the songs on Ashes & Fire are almost acts of contrition. And above all else, Adams seems to be heavily investing in the idea that lights are always categorically at the end of tunnels.
It's the same, because like everything else Ryan Adams has done, this album ventures artistically into uncharted territory, but it's different, because in the past, Adams has always pushed himself stylistically, but on Ashes & Fire, Adams doesn't attempt to break any musical molds, it's pretty much just country-tinged folky kind-of Rock music. No, this time around Adams is pushing himself ideologically.
I recognized all of this, but I still couldn't help asking myself how Ashes & Fire can sound like the Ryan Adams we've known since he released the Angels ep with Whiskeytown a decade and a half ago, but feel like an album by a new man, until it occurred to me that, well, that's kind of exactly what Ashes & Fire is; the songwriter's the same, but everything else has changed.
Ryan Adams released one album as a solo artist without preconception or pretense; Heartbreaker was nothing more than what it was, a record by some guy most regular people had never heard of. It wasn't constrained by any outside quixotic notion of what it should or could be, it wasn't expected to break new barriers or to live up to anything because as a solo artist, there wasn't anything for it to live up to. But Heartbreaker, while maybe not an initially huge commercial success, was a critical coup for Adams that opened a lot of people's eyes to his abilities as a songwriter and musician. With a single record, Adams became this sort of critical paradigm of what was possible.
Adams spent the next 5 years of his career trying to live up to the artistic visage that Heatbreaker created, and spent the 3 after those first 5 placating his record label Lost Highway, releasing 2 records and an ep that, while are very good (Cardinology is deceptively exceptional), are also tacitly commercial. His entire output with Lost Highway was a mixed bag of sorts: one part self-actualization, self-acknowledgement, and adherence to his creative integrity, one part artistic bondage and (coerced) demiurgic concession.
It's our fault. The bottom line is we backed him into a corner. Fans, critics, his label all wanted him to live up to their expectations, and because he was slightly neurotic and his personal life was such a mess, he cared so much about what we thought of him because he had nothing else in his life to really care about. For his entire career with Lost Highway, he repeatedly tried to prove himself to us, and with each record, Adams got a little bit more jaded because no matter how good a record was, it always seemed to fall a little short of what we expected. He tried harder than any man ever should have to, and even though I think all of his records have been at least a tiny slice of genius, trying to be everything to everyone frustrated him to no end and pissed off a lot of people who were listening to the albums. We fucked him over for caring too much about what we thought, but on Ashes & Fire, he doesn't care anymore.
He's happily married and a published poet with his own recording studio and his own label. He's comfortable with himself now, and that's what makes Ashes & Fire so different from the rest of his catalog. He's not trying to prove himself to us, he frankly could give a fuck about us. He's just a guy who happens to be really good at writing and recording songs who decided to write and record some more songs. He's no longer a boy clamoring for attention and acceptance, he's a man who's accepted himself. Ashes & Fire is still Ryan Adams, he's just all grown up, and honestly, adulthood agrees with him.
Sure, I imagine that people who've listened to Ryan Adams and admired him for the musical risks he's taken might find Ashes & Fire a bit safe upon the first few listens, and in honor of full disclosure, I need to admit that I did. Certainly, Glyn Johns' production is sleek and polished, but it's also minimally intrusive, remarkably spacious, and frankly, quite breathtaking. And even if I was desperate to, it'd be hard for me to deny the fact that this record isn't anywhere near as musically adventurous as one might expect from an artist releasing his first crop of newly recorded material on his own label after spending so many years complaining as loudly as he did about label constraints, but lyrically, and again, ideologically, this is maybe as brazen and brutally honest as he's ever been. He's not using his scars as a crutch, shield, or sword, he's simply accepting them as fact and moving on, looking forward.
I can't say confidence that Ashes & Fire is Ryan Adams' best album, but it is the most honest he's been with himself in over a decade, and it's easily the most exposed, genuine, and unaffected record he's released since Heartbreaker, and there's absolutely nothing safe about that. Like I said, it's the same, but different. Superficially, Ashes & Fire may sound at first too close to what Adams has done in the past to feel comfortable with, but if you're willing and able to listen to this album with an attentive and objective ear, it's impossible not to hear that Ryan Adams is doing something really special here.