Ashes & Fire by Ryan Adams (Capitol Records/Pax Americana Record Company, 2011. 43 minutes)
Ryan Adams is a singer-songwriter renowned for his contributions to the alt-country genre. Originally a member of the band Whiskeytown, Adams began his solo career with Heartbreaker in 2000. A prolific songwriter with 13 albums released since 2000, Adams garnered the most commercial success with Gold. In addition to music, Adams has published Infinity Blues and Hello Sunshine, books of poetry. Adams married Mandy Moore in 2009 and took an extended hiatus—for him, at least—from music. In 2010, Adams founded a record label, PAX AM and has released has latest two releases on the label.
The Rubric of Great Art
There are times when music pauses reality with a unique melody or a noteworthy phrase. A song penetrates the soul at far from objective depths. These moments intrigue a listener; one wants to unveil the songwriting process, connect to the artist at the most basic of levels.
What if, having queried an artist, you learn your emotional connections to a song mean little to nothing, the deep movement protruding from the sonic textures translate to nothing more than a paycheck for the artist instead of a moment from a personal diary? Would such a result alter the way you think of the song?
On one hand, I want art to forge the connection between creator and consumer. Yet, beautiful art remains exemplary regardless of authorial intent.
Given these quandaries, Ryan Adams’ Ashes & Fire intrigues. Emotionally honest and abstemious alternative country, Ashes & Fire feels like a counseling session. In this openness, I feel a personal connection with Adams. Whether or not the person emerging from the lyrics equates to Ryan Adams in reality, the lyrical content on openness to a successful relationship and the fears of its quick demise provides the foundation for an outstanding record.
Dancing in the Dirty Rain
Ashes & Fire opens with “Dirty Rain”. With a thin acoustic guitar and piano accompaniment from Norah Jones, Adams introduces the overarching themes of the album with his first verse:
“Last time I was here it was raining/It isn’t raining anymore/The streets were drowned, the waters waning/All the ruins washed ashore/I’m here, just looking through the rubble/Tryin’ to find out who we were/Last time I was here it was raining/It isn’t raining anymore”
With a history of self-afflicted drug abuse and alcoholism, Adams views his current successful relationship with doubt. How long will it last before the rain drowns everything of value? When Adams sings, “And you and I are out dancing in the dirty rain,” it feels like a plea to stick together through thick and thin.
To Wait in Uncertainty
“Do I Wait?”, another highlight of Ashes & Fire, continues the theme of doubt. A descending chord progression, similar to “The Shadowlands”, my favorite Ryan Adams tune, suggests the dread of a relationship in peril. Adams commences the song with questions:
“Do I want to say the things that I say?/When I know that they are wrong?/Do I wait here forever for you?/Did you ask me to?”
As the uncertainty in the song builds, Adams’ voice feels more strained until a gorgeous guitar solo introduces the song’s climax.
The Pros and Cons of a Boundary
The next song, “Chains of Love”, announces a shift in emotion. Perhaps the commitment of a relationship does not mean an inevitable slide into discord.
“I can see the chains of love/The chains/Talking about the chains of love/Can’t take us away”
Even though the use of a chain as a metaphor for a relationship conjures the feeling of love as a prison, Adams’ voice suggests the possibility of chains as a metaphor for healthy cementedness in a relationship.
Steadfast Despite Doubt
With this shift in place, the back half of Ashes & Fire carries more hopefulness, culminating in the final song, “I Love You But I Don’t Know What to Say”.
Including reserved and bare instrumentation, the track acknowledges the difficulty of a relationship while maintaining the commitment of moving forward.
“I promise you/I will keep you safe from harm/And love you all the rest of my days/When the night is silent/And we seem so far away/I love you/And I don’t know what to say”
Do We Need Confessions from a Personal Diary?
Whether or not we are receiving glimpses of his personal diary, Adams writes convincing songs; they feel genuine and the hopeful-despite-scared quality resonates with any relationship.
If I met Ryan Adams tomorrow and he told me Ashes & Fire exists for a paycheck alone, the quality of the music and the emotional pull would not change. I like imagining Adams as a tortured songwriter but a good song is a good song no matter the process behind its creation. If you like emotionally honest singer-songwriters and find affinity with alt-country, check out Ashes & Fire.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
What do you think? Are you a fan of Ryan Adams or alternative country? Do you want your music to have a level of honesty? Does the artist’s intention matter to you?Share your thoughts below.