Only two years ago now one of the most notable names in the music industry announced his retirement. But Ryan Adams has returned to us, much to the delight of many country rock fans, with a new solo album, entitled Ashes and Fire.
Ryan first rocketed onto the music scene with the release of Heartbreaker in 2000. It was a raw, personal album, packed with acoustic guitars and despairing, heart-felt lyrics. He soon became known for this genre of bummed out folk music. He was depressing as hell… but people loved him for it.
Since then Ryan has led the predictably clichéd life of a musician. His health and career almost completely disintegrated due to substance abuse. The artist claims himself “it was a miracle he didn’t die”. He gave up both heroin and cocaine in 2006.
However, Ryan also had issues with his backing band The Cardinals, who carried the artist through five albums. However, tensions in the band led to the bassist Caroline Popper leaving in 2006. The band then dissolved in 2009 on bad terms.
Perhaps the musician’s biggest struggle, though, was his diagnosis with Ménière’s disease five years ago. This disease is an inflammation of the inner ear and its symptoms include nausea and dizziness but most importantly the loss of hearing at certain frequencies.
For any normal person this disease is a hassle; for a musician it can be devastating.
So Ryan Adams was left in 2009 with no band, no record deal and damaged hearing. Not exactly the ideal set up for someone with a career in music. He therefore announced his retirement and disappeared to enjoy a quiet life with his wife, actress Mandy Moore.
However, this new album has proven that the artist is about as capable as staying away from a recording studio as students are at staying away from a bar advertising pound drinks.
Ashes and Fire, his return as a solo artist, has illustrated that he has overcome his Ménière’s disease and his other issues. It is possibly the most emotional fraught album since his debut in 2000, Heartbreaker.
With low key guest singers such as Norah Jones the album is kept far more basic than the Adams we are used to. The average track length is only three and a half minutes with every track focused on his voice and a single instrument. Producer, Glynn Jones, has kept the record about what Adams does best.
The opening track ‘Dirty Rain’ has a simplicity to both its lyrics and melody that is akin to that of Willie Nelson’s, Adams’ idol. This song introduces us to the new, mature Ryan Adams that the rest of the album allows us to get used to.
The first track to be released from Ashes and Fire, ‘Lucky Now’, consists of lyrics that are dedicated to lost youth- a tribute to the bassist of the Cardinals Chris Feinstein, who died in 2009. But it also seems to be a highly personal track in which Adams acknowledges the changes he has undergone in the past few years, summarised in the finishing line of the song “am I really who I was?”
The last track on the album ‘I Love You but I Don’t Know What to Say’ is the one that will be likely to last with listeners long after the album is over. With his voice carrying the song over the piano, Adams causes an impact with very little effort. The track appears to be a message of love and devotion to his wife yet at the same time it stands to be a testament to the emotional turmoil he has experienced in the last decade.
So Ryan Adams, finally settled in a domestic home, his Ménière’s disease in remission and his music career back on track, appears to have truly left behind the fire in his life.
This album reflects this. The diehard fans may not appreciate the lack of raw, personal lyrics and dramatic melodies that define Heartbreaker. It is doubtful Adams will ever truly live up to that incredibly powerful debut. However, Ashes and Fire conveys a different side to the artist, a mature side. He is less self-indulgent with his songs than he was ten years ago. His music has been stripped bare and toned down. But this is promising.
As Adams embarks on his solo tour, it seems that this album marks a successful return to the music industry for arguably one of the greatest musicians of our generation. His work continues to influence several popular artists to date.
So is Ryan Adams really who he was? The answer is no, but this makes him no less of a musician, quite the contrary, it has allowed him to move on and develop as an artist.
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