Words by Brian Salvatore
The Five Stages of a New Ryan Adams Record: A Guide to Your Emotions (Ashes and Fire Edition)
Stage 1: “This is his best album since Heartbreaker!”
Ryan Adams is one of his generation’s most effortless songwriters. If he released a new album every 8 months, like the Kinks of old, there would be at least 4-5 very good songs per album. Since Ashes and Fire is his first album of new material since 2008, the appetite for good Adams songs is even stronger than usual. And because of that, “Dirty Rain,” the album opener, sounds like the best song you’ve heard all year. It is confident yet fragile, it has a soaring melody that is rooted by some top-notch musicians doing some very simple but captivating work beneath it. When the mood picks up on the title track, you begin to think the calling card of Stage 1: “This is his best album since Heartbreaker!” You realize you’re only two songs in, but come on! Listen to that piano; are you sure this isn’t from 1972?
Stage 2: “This guy really knows how to pick his players”
There isn’t a sloppy note, or a misplaced pedal steel anywhere to be found; every harmony sounds both fresh and familiar. Sure, some of the songs may carry on a little too long, but blame that on his mid-career coming out as a Grateful Dead fan – that isn’t the fault of the faultless bass player or the thankless drummer playing simple parts that never distract or clutter up the songs. You also realize that this may be the best album for organ players since Keith Emerson was king of the prog rock nation. You begin to realize that even though Adams has dabbled in metal and jam band territories, he is a member of the triumvirate of music from the heart: soul, country and punk rock. The songs come first, and everything else is window dressing.
Stage 3: “I still don’t know what happened to his voice after Heartbreaker”
In a couple of songs, because Heartbreaker is on your mind, you start to reminisce about when you first heard it; were you, like me, a freshmen in college, having to confront your prejudices about country music? Were you a middle aged woman, hearing a continuation of the Flying Burrito Brothers you loved so much in high school? And then you start to remember how Adams sounded on Heartbreaker; his voice has gotten somewhat froggier since then – how and why did that happen? Did he start taking voice lessons? Did he cut down on his cigarettes? You may prefer his new voice to his old one, which really doesn’t matter; it just needs to be acknowledged.
Stage 4: “A lot of these songs are starting to sound the same”
Even though there are occasional strings, or minor shifts in tempo, the formula is very similar from tune to tune. “Invisible Riverside” is probably just as good of a song as “Rocks,” but because I heard “Rocks” earlier in the sequence, I feel like “Invisible Riverside” is just copping its feel. The tempos are especially starting to feel like they are rarely moving from track to track. Let’s call this stage the ‘Sea Change syndrome’; Beck’s Sea Change has a few fantastic songs, but each one of them works better on a playlist of other material than as part of Sea Change – the album is just too monochromatic to let any of its tracks stand out too much. You invariably turn back to Hearbreaker, although you feel bad constantly doing so, to the couple of shit-kicking rock and roll songs on that record, that nicely bisected it and gave it some diversity. You long for the drummer to start messing with the tempos and pushing some of these songs to more exhilarating places, or for Adams to drop the band and do one solo acoustic.
Stage 5: “Same as it ever was”
The joy and the frustration of being a Ryan Adams fan is that each album is made up of good songs, but we never really get a great album. You begin to realize that even your beloved Heartbreaker really sags in the back half. For a guy with a reputation for being manic and from bouncing from project to project, almost everything he has released in the past 5-8 years could have all been culled from the same sessions, tonally. You begin to think that maybe people build his reputation solely on his public appearances: harassing a heckler calling him Bryan Adams, marrying a former teen pop star, wearing Iron Maiden t-shirts, “quitting” the business a number of times. Because listening to his records, he seems like a workingman’s songwriter who consistently turns out really good stuff. However, because of what we expect, and the false memories of past perfection, we are always content to love the new Ryan Adams album for its first three listens, then to begin to see the cracks around listen five, and to eventually shelve it, along with his other records, until the new one comes out, and we start all over again. Don’t lose this guide, it will be necessary again for the next time you encounter a record by this solid, but frustrating, artist.
“Ashes & Fire”
© October 11, 2011
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