Say what you will about Ryan Adams's more perplexing albums -- Rock 'n Roll, for example, or the not-quite-metal Orion -- but he at least sounds excited on them. Flawed as those experiments may be, they show Adams pushing a bit, pressing, urgent. It's refreshing (if the music isn't quite) because his last work with the Cardinals felt pretty tame. Cardinology and the extensive odds and ends set III/IV were both pleasant sounding but also workmanlike. They were full of proficient, often sweet tunes, but they rarely surprised, and often came off as Adams-by-the-numbers, the production too sleek and the songs too settled into their lilting mid-tempos to elevate themselves above background music.
As a regular solo artist, making regular albums, Adams has been plenty uneven, but in 2005, when he first starting putting out records with the Cardinals, there was hope of a new and exciting consistency. The jammy Cold Roses, the dusty, countrified Jacksonville City Nights, the wandering solo work on 29 -- they all came out in the same year and they were all surprising and mostly excellent. In fact, it's the last time Adams caught us off guard in a truly satisfying way.
Sadly, Ashes and Fire doesn't break that cycle. This is exactly what you'd expect from Ryan Adams, which dulls its effect right off the bat, but thankfully this is a solid song cycle. Its closest cousin in Adams's discography is Easy Tiger, though without the Cardinals this album takes on a more stripped-down feel that works in his favor. It's a quiet record, built nearly entirely on acoustic ballads, the best of which remind us how Adams can write great songs in his sleep.
Opener "Dirty Rain" employs a fittingly overcast shuffle, and hints at Adams's more lovelorn past. "Last time I was here it was raining," he sings. "It ain't raining anymore." But the high keen of his voice in the chorus brings an urgency to the otherwise laid-back song. It elevates a country thumper to something sweeter and more lasting, the kind of pop music he's always knocked out of the park. The title track follows as one of the album's most vibrant tunes. Adams, who sings softly all over the record, goes ahead and belts it out here, and a tack piano backs him up with sharp punctuations of sound, and if the guitar solo is a bit basic, it still breaks up the albums reliance on acoustics nicely.
The quietest song early on is "Come Home," and since it follows "Ashes and Fire" it works as a valley to its precedessors peak of energy. "Rocks" is a bit more lush, with beds of strings flowing under Adams's fragile singing. Again, it's a solid song, but all of a sudden a precedent is being set. "I'm not rocks in the river," Adams insists on that song, but things get pretty worn down from here. The mid-tempo balladry starts to pile up, each song sounding as faint and anonymously sweet as the last. "Do I Wait" feels like an old heartache for Adams, the kind he outgrew long ago, and there are more measured investigations of love on this album that work better. "Chains of Love" isn't one of them, as it tries to restore the energy of "Ashes and Fire," but its half-memories ("Clouds moving over the house, I think about those days") feel pretty generic. "Kindness" suffers from the same kind of sentimentality that doesn't resonate. "Kindness don't ask for much but an open mind," he sings, so faintly you're not sure he's buying, but you're pretty sure you're not. It's not that plainspoken discussion of love can't work, it's that Adams has done it so well before that here it feels like he's selling himself short. Like he's trying to sound like a Ryan Adams we already know. So when we get to the final song "I Love You But I Don't Know What to Say" he really loses us over the treacly piano balladry, because of course he does, and he's written a whole album saying it.
There is some stuff late in the record that works, like the gentle pluck of "Invisible Riverside" and, in particular, "Lucky Now." That song recognizes the raw nerve of Adams's past on lines like "I don't remember, were we wild and young?" He does, of course, but here he seems thankful for past hurts. "The night will break your heart, but only if you're lucky now," he sings, and here you feel a performer who has grown over time from the raucous, heartbroken young mess into the man who's learned from that history.
This mature Ryan Adams gives us 11 songs on Ashes and Fire that are perfectly fine, a few bumps but most of it is solid with a few that really stand out. It's fresher than his last few albums; you can feel these songs a bit more. But if you ask me, I'm still looking for that Ryan Adams from 2005. He seemed to have it all together, and he was making great records. That guy was both wild and young, and I'm not willing to believe he's gone yet. He just doesn't show up enough here.