Watch Ryan Adams perform “Dirty Rain” here.
Is Ryan Adams getting soft in his old age?
Listening to his new album, “Ashes & Fire,” that question comes quickly.
Adams puts out music at such a clip, though, it’s hard to tell whether any new album is a set direction or just a snapshot. So maybe he’s getting soft; maybe he’s just exhaling.
The new album, Adams’ 13th in 11 years(!), perfectly exemplifies the good and bad of his prolific ways. While Adams’ muse inspires some excellent tunes here, too many of them seem too similar — like he was writing in a certain vein and didn’t wait for more songs to surface. As well, some of the tracks seem so hot-off-the-presses, the recordings show Adams still feeling them out. Recent promotional performances of these new songs — the title track in particular — are superior to the album versions. But those are the frustrations of listening to Adams, who rarely lets his songs simmer before hitting the studio.
There’s a folky sparseness to the tracks that will inevitably draw comparisons to 2000’s “Heartbreaker,” Adams’ first solo album. But a lot has happened since then. Adams has recorded an astounding amount of diverse music since the turn of the century. He’s exhibited the boundless potential critics knew he had, but has been criticized for his inability to filter that potential. Once the music industry’s darling, Adams’ most recent endeavors have been viewed with a sort of indifference that, a decade ago, would be inconceivable.
But back to the “Heartbreaker” comparison. It’s understandable, though not really valid. “Heartbreaker” displayed the justifiably cocky, twentysomething ambition that typified Adams’ early work. On “Ashes & Fire,” Adams, now married, sober and nearing 40, sounds remarkably settled — at times too much so. Maybe he just has nothing to prove now, but “Ashes & Fire” sounds void of the volatility that was once a trademark of his work.
Not that “Ashes & Fire” doesn’t have stellar material. “Rocks,” with it’s James Taylor-style finger picking and nightingale falsetto, is one of Adams’ most effectively intimate songs to date. The grooving lilt on “Invisible Riverside” displays the kind of understated songwriting expertise that Adams employs almost effortlessly. And the guitar solo on “Do I Wait” caps a perfectly built crescendo of a song, revealing just the right amount of bite that the album could use a bit more of.
Adams has always been one to make it all sound easy. But this time around the ease isn’t paired with ambition; Adams shows almost no desire to assert his musical superiority here. But, given his track record, maybe such exhaling is a good thing.