Ryan Adams: Ashes & Fire, A Love of Music, and A Glorious Return to Form.

“Nobody has to cry to make it seem real,” Ryan Adams croons on his latest record.

This comment seems to come straight from the horses’ mouth; Adams is constantly filled with naysayers who repeat the same jargon about his career again and again: his better days are behind him, his promise is gone, he’s lost his ‘mojo’ somewhere along the way, his publicized battles with substances, according to too many reviewers and critics, are either at fault for his musical “inconsistencies”, or else they resulted in some of his best, past beautiful work, and now that Adams is “clean” and “happy”, he is unable to continue making the same tortured records he did when he was in his twenties. I read these reviews and find them unfair; to toss around words like “addict”, “directionless”, “prolific” and phrases like “he needs an editor”, “he’s past his prime”, “he’s older now and slowed down.” Just let the man make music. And, for better or worse, whether you like the record or not, let the record speak for itself; it might speak to you. It might not. It’s unfair to treat an artist like an unchanging entity. While Adams has a great and frequent amount of output, he is a person, who undergoes changes, maturations and fascinations like anyone else. Think of Love is Hell for example, as the Ryan Adams version of Picasso’s infamous “Blue Period.” To get across “real” emotion, does the “emotion” need to come from that dark a place to be real? It’s a question I think that’s on a lot of people’s minds with this release, Adams’ first since taking a hiatus and getting married and living his life without the touring, recording and former antics he (sadly and unfortunately) became known for.

Ashes & Fire is the latest addition to the extensive Adams catalogue; including solo efforts and stints with Whiskeytown and the Cardinals (B-sides, EPs and unreleased whole albums and tracks notwithstanding), Adams has released sixteen records; each of his records stands alone in his catalogue as a unique conceptual piece that seems influenced by either who he was listening to or working with at the time. This is what I’ve found consistently fascinating about Ryan Adams’ work: he cites his musical loves and influences all the time, but those loves and influences seem to change with each of his releases. During Heartbreaker, it seemed Adams was constantly citing Morrisey and The Smiths as the life-changers and at the same time, talking about how much Oasis and Mariah Carey were also blowing his mind; when he befriended Elton John, he went on interviews about what an honour it was to be recognized by the artist behind Honkey Chateau. Ridiculously fun and funny b-side “Song for Keith” is all about Ryan Adams’ adoration of the Rolling Stones, which sounds un-ironically, just like a Rolling Stones outtake. Lately, Adams is all about black metal, paired with his admiration of British singer-songwriter Laura Marling. The man loves music. And it’s easy to see how someone who loves music this much (perhaps.., just as much as I do?) and has the fortunate ability to craft, produce and write great music, would of course have a huge output based on tons and tons and tons of heroes and influences, mixed with natural-born talent and his own experiences. It is Ryan Adams’ love of music that draws me to be curious about exactly what he’ll do next, and what turn he’ll take on the windy road of his career. I can relate to that love. I don’t make music myself, but sometimes my love for music is schizophrenic and overwhelming, just as it is a part of everything I do, think and write.

While not all of Adams’ experimentations have been a 1,000% success, I love each one of his efforts sheerly because I can see this love behind it; even the bizarro, darkly funny and almost surreal metal record, “Orion”, which I never listen to and didn’t really like that much, but could appreciate Adams saying essentially, “this is what I’m listening to at the moment, and I’m going to try and share that passion and recreate it in my own musical realm.” And why not, right? If you have your own label and you have resources at your fingertips to do so, what’s stopping you?

Ashes & Fire, Ryan Adams’ latest release on his own Pax-Am record label, is his most consistent, heartfelt, peaceful and truly WONDERFUL effort in a while (though, unlike many have been saying, not that long a while). The first two songs on the record, “Dirty Rain” and the title track respectively, are straight-up classics and some of Adams’ best songs in years. “Come Home” and “Rocks” are divinely and meticulously crafted contemporary almost new-age folk with a heavy-handed edge and nature-laden peacefulness that are pleasant, beautiful and oddly grown up. “I am not rocks in the river/I am birds singing, tears falling,” Adams sings on Rocks; it seems the crooning and fluidity of the two aforementioned songs prove this point.

The mid-point and latter half of the record features “Kindness”, “Chains of Love”, “Lucky Now” and “Save Me”, songs that are really just classic Ryan Adams; it seems he unloaded a suitcase containing everything he’s learned so far and laid its contents out in front of him, sorting through it as he made this record. There are echoes of some of his finest moments of his career here, and the more you listen to them, the deeper and more profoundly moving they become.  

I used to think too, that the best art came from inner torment or restlessness. That it was impossible for a “happy” artist, or someone satisfied with themselves and their life, to make a record that I could really delve into or relate to. And I realized as I got older, that’s something that the 19 or 20-year old version of myself thought; I was a disillusioned and seemingly aimless student who was always brooding and melodramatic. As I got older I realized this: everyone gets older, learns lessons and finds a pathway to inner peace. It won’t improve or “damage” the art you were capable of making or understanding. It is what it is. In this case, what it is, is an absolutely one million percent BEAUTIFUL record full of nuances, romance, subtleties and an abundance of other little touches that reminded me why I fell in love with the fabulous songs and records of Ryan Adams in the first place.

As an aside: I can say that I’ve seen Ryan Adams in concert twice, and I have met him once, and he was talented, gracious, humble, lovely and absolutely hilarious; I wish people would stop grilling him about his off-the-wall ramblings and on-stage oddities; I also wish audience members at his shows would stop yelling out stupid bullshit like “PLAY SUMMER OF ’69!” and busting out song requests. Just as a footnoted FYI.

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