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“Somebody save me
I just can't go on
If someone don't save me
By the morning I will be gone.”
To many critics and Ryan Adams fans, both casual and devoted, 2012’s Ashes & Fire album was what they had been hoping and waiting for: a collection of songs that was as consistent and coherent as 2001’s Heartbreaker, the prolific American singer/songwriter’s debut album as a solo artist. That’s not say that Ashes & Fire is Heartbreaker II. Like Adams’ solo debut, Ashes & Fire is a melodic and harmonic unison of Folk and Alt-Country, but in style and spirit it’s more reminiscent of the rustic aesthetic of 2005’s Jacksonville City Nights. Still, it’s not quite an accurate description. Whereas Jacksonville City Nights alternated between ballads and up-tempo/mid-tempo songs, Ashes & Fire is fairly slow and low-key, albeit with uplifting choruses. The tasteful production is provided courtesy of legendary producer Glyn Johns (The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles), whose son Ethan Johns produced several of Ryan Adams’ earlier albums, including Heartbreaker, Gold, and 29, as well as his old band Whiskeytown’s Pneumonia.
Ashes & Fire opens with the ruminative Dirty Rain in which Ryan Adams reminisces about the last days of a dying relationship, knowing that their love is irrevocably lost (“Last time I was here, you were waiting / You're not waiting anymore…Last time I was here, you were crying / You're not crying anymore”). As bittersweet as the memories are, he does assume his share of the blame by acknowledging his own resentment and hostility (“And your coat was full of bullet holes”). The subject matter is dramatic, but the instrumentation -– acoustic guitar, drum taps, piano and organ -– is soft and subdued in comparison. This contrast between the lyrical intensity and the subtle musical backdrop is maintained throughout the majority of the album. Featuring a Waltz-like beat, acoustic guitar and old-timey Honky-Tonk piano, Ashes & Fire sounds very much like a song that Bob Dylan could’ve written back in the early 1970s, and that’s a compliment. As the title implies, the lyrics are referring to the mythical bird Phoenix, which burns fiercely and is reduced to ashes, from which a new phoenix arises, reborn anew. Ryan Adams: “I was trying to paint this picture of somebody not destroyed by change.” Come Home is a quiet plea to a lover for reconciliation in the hope that they can still build a future together despite all that they’ve been through (“You built this house / You built it stone by stone / Hammer in your hand / You built this home / This house is strong…”). The discreet musical arrangement consists of merely acoustic guitar, whiskers and lap steel, and the hushed backing vocals are delivered by Norah Jones and Adams’ girlfriend Mandy Moore. These two songstresses also appear on Save Me, which vividly describes the heartbreak and despair that follows in the wake of a failed relationship, beautifully conveyed by Adams’ empathic vocal and mournful lyrics (“Somebody save me / I just can't go on / If someone don't save me / By the morning I will be gone”).
Rocks is a straight-out Folk tune and a very pretty one at that, possibly Adams’ most fragile and affecting vocal performance on Ashes & Fire, very much in keeping with the lyrical content (”I am not rocks / I am not rain / I'm just another shadow in the stream / That's been washed away after all these years”). Do I Wait, the album’s centrepiece, addresses the overall theme of trying to let go of a past love and work up the courage to face a new beginning (“Do I wait here forever for you? / Would you ask me to?”). While the hope for reconciliation is hinted at, the narrator’s reasoning, which almost reads like wishful thinking, makes it clear that breaking up is the only right thing to do (“I've been waiting here all night / If you're not going to show / We're not going to fight”). Quiet but very intense, the song is an impressive exercise in pent-up emotions and frustrations that ultimately winds up exploding in breathtaking cascades of electric guitar, drums, and organ.
The Whiskeytown-esque Lucky Now, the first single off the album, is an aching but definitive break with the past (“I don’t remember, were we wild and young / All that’s faded into memory”). And then there’s the wistful Kindness, which oozes longing and unfulfilled desire, the almost unbearable need for someone to ease your mind, to love you and mend your heart (“Kindness don’t ask for much / But an open mind / Kindness can cure a broken heart / Honey, are you feeling kind?”). Ashes & Fire ends on a tender, touching note with the charming, soul-baring piano ballad I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say. It’s Ryan Adams at his most naked and vulnerable, as he confesses to the simplicity and limitations of his own words (“We belong here, we belong here / Ain’t nobody that can tell us we’re wrong / Help me say, say this to you / I’ll stand by your side, to see you through”). He’s found a new love, and he has no choice but to believe that his partner is equally committed, and that this time around love is here to stay.