When Ryan Adams quit his band and got married in 2009, it seemed like an appropriate time for him to end a prolific career and a tumultuous private life. He was 35, clean after years of addiction, and literally going deaf from Ménière’s disease. His tenth record in 10 years, Cardinology, had been unremarkable (even for this forgiving fan who dressed as Adams for Halloween and wore the outfit to his Oct. 31 show at The Apollo Theater). And above all, his marriage to bombshell Mandy Moore implied that the king of pain had ditched the muse that had inspired songs like “My Heart is Broken,” “Why do They Leave?” and “Now That You’re Gone,” and entire albums like Heartbreaker and Love is Hell.
Thankfully, the sober and shacked up Adams wasn’t really ready to retire. In 2010, he quietly released a metal-infused album on vinyl and a collection of live tracks with his ex-band, The Cardinals. This summer, in typical eclectic fashion, he covered songs by Vampire Weekend and Iron Maiden. Finally, he returned to form this fall with Ashes and Fire, streaming on NPR’s First Listen until its official Oct 11 release. On his thirteenth album, Adams combines his folk-country roots with a newfound matrimonial mellowness.
Ashes and Fire is a study in musical minimalism. The sound centers on Adams’ voice and acoustic guitar, with piano, organ, and pedal steel embellishments. Adams sticks to folk-country-blues-rock chord progressions and simple harmonies that match the album’s no-frills aesthetic. He mostly forsakes the growly side of his voice for the upper limits of his range. On the album’s many ballads, his tenor sounds like countrified crooners Neil Young or John Denver. And on “Chains of Love,” Adams channels the soaring style of Bono over a driving bass line reminiscent of vintage U2. Guest vocals by the former teen pop star Moore and adult contemporary queen Norah Jones recall Adams’ earlier collaborations with Emmylou Harris, Rachel Yamagata, and Beth Orton.
Lyrically, Ashes and Fire is the capstone to a career filled with earnest emotion. Or as Adams puts it: “Nobody has to hide/The way that they [sic] feel.” The plainspoken song titles include “Come Home,” “Save Me,” and the retro-cliché “Chains of Love.” As in the past, Adams references his native North Carolina and his adopted home New York, and infuses his latest love songs with nature imagery, with references to rivers and rain, fires and flowers, and the celestial trinity of sun, moon, and stars. Yet he seems to have shed his youthful bitterness, as with his question “Do you believe in love?” and the album’s final lyric: “I love you/But I don’t know what to say.” Mandy Moore must be blushing in her cowboy boots.
Elsewhere, Adams wonders “Am I really who I used to be?” In some ways, the answer is yes. Of all his prior albums, Ashes and Fire sounds closest to his stellar 2000 debut, Heartbreaker. The similarity may reflect the handiwork of legendary classic rock producer Glyn Johns, father of Ethan Johns, who produced Adams’s first three albums. That said, Ashes and Fire has less angst than any of those records, if not any in the Adams oevre. On Heartbreaker, Adams declared: “When you’re young/You get sad.” Now he sings, “I don’t remember/Were we wild and young?/All that’s faded to a memory.”
With the exception of his most famous (and perhaps least typical) song “New York, New York,” Adams has never been a guy to write hit singles. The closest things on Ashes and Fire are “Chains of Love” and the title track, a country waltz with a rollicking honky-tonk piano. Both songs are in the key of B flat, a regular harmonic sweet spot for Adams. And both songs are a welcome burst of adrenaline on the predominately low-key album.
In December, Adams will play Carnegie Hall. Given the venerable venue, his domesticated life, and his mellow new music, he probably won’t kick over an amplifier in frustration or squabble with his band mates, as he did when I first saw him perform in New York, or smoke cigarettes on stage, as he did during an interview with Charlie Rose. More likely, the former bad boy will heed the advice from one of his recent album titles: Easy Tiger.
Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. His recent reviews include albums by Thundercat, Beirut, and Bon Iver and the Ray Lamontagne concert at the Central Park Summerstage. He believes in love.