When someone refers to a musician as ‘prolific’ it’s usually a thinly-veiled euphemism for ‘someone who needs to shut up more often’. Yet when it comes to the music of David Ryan Adams, being prolific does not mean being profligate; few artists have released as much material as he has in the last decade, but even fewer still have turned out as many brilliant songs.
This isn’t to say that every one of his twelve albums from 2000’s seminal Heartbreaker onwards has been a classic; 2003’s Rock N Roll was a mish-mash, and his last two albums – III/IV (with The Cardinals) and Orion – have been bitterly disappointing, the former a rocked-up double-album which fails to maintain interest and the latter an exploratory metal concept album a world away from the haunting country strains which attracted such a passionate fanbase.
At his peak, however, there are few more talented songwriters, as one listen to Gold or Demolition will inform you. Quality tracks like ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’ (Heartbreaker), ‘Two’ (Easy Tiger) or ‘Please Do Not Let Me Go’ (Love is Hell, Part 2) litter his LPs; they burn with a sincerity increasingly uncommon in singer-songwriters, and it’s this intimacy and immediacy which lies at the centre of Adams’ enduring appeal.
Ashes & Fire, his thirteenth studio album, feels far more like the Ryan Adams we’ve come to know. Stripped back to the simplest of arrangements, in many places simply Adams and a guitar, it hums with the same honesty and emotional integrity which makes his best work so memorable. The North Carolina-born singer’s greatest musical asset has always been his ability to create and foster a connection with his listener, and here he returns to those communicative roots. Paradoxically, Adams’ music is often at its most powerful when using the fewest decibels.
‘Come Home’ and ‘Lucky Now’, two of the finest songs on the record, reflect this contemplative approach, Adams’ voice lilting over unfussy backing and showcasing his gift for straightforward, yet eloquent lyricism: “You built those walls / To hide your fears inside / We were younger then / It’s safe now to come outside” (‘Come Home’).
What this reserved recording style also augments is the engaging brilliance of Adams’ voice. On the rare occasions where his lyrics approach the trite – ‘Chains Of Love’ – the emotional openness of Adams’ vocal carries the song through, and when he’s at his most personal – ‘I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say’ – they sound as tender and heartfelt as a lover’s whisper.
Love itself has always been at the centre of Adams’ best work, from its potent highs to its devastating lows, and here we hear both sides of this coin, which has been flipped by every lyricist from Hank Williams to Jay-Z. Closer ‘I Love You…’ is a clear counterweight to the tale of romantic woe spun in the excellent title track, and to the nostalgic country wordplay of opener ‘Dirty Rain’ – “Last time I was here it was rainin’ / It ain’t rainin’ anymore” followed later by “Last time I was here you were waitin’ / You’re not waitin’ anymore”.
There’s a Southern glow audible on Ashes & Fire reminiscent of Adams and The Cardinals’ Jacksonville City Nights, perhaps the most brazenly country album of the singer’s formidable back-catalogue, but the deft deployment of lap steel, country backbeat percussion and piano, all mixed in with some fragile moments of personal revelation, make Ashes & Fire sound more like a successor to Heartbreaker.
Is it as good as that sensational debut album? No. But there are threads to be drawn between the two which remind us of just how good Adams can be. It would be facile to say that they’re both albums about the thrills of being in love, as ‘Come Home’ or ‘Come Pick Me Up’ (Heartbreaker) make clear, but there is a slightly more optimistic tone hit here than, say, the blues of Love Is Hell or the angst of Cardinology.
Truth be told, Ashes & Fire does not stack up against some of the marvels in Adams’ discography, occasionally lacking bite and sometimes exploring an idea for too long. But taking it, as we should, on its own merits, it’s a cathartic, tender, earnest album which talks about love without sounding hackneyed or saccharine, and that should be praised.
For old-school Adams fans, this is tonic. For everyone else, it’s warming whiskey.