Ryan Adams invokes the past in his latest effort, ‘Ashes & Fire’
Ryan Adams doesn’t always make it easy to be a Ryan Adams fan. After capturing indie souls with Heartbreaker in 2000, and then the world’s attention with 2001’s Gold, the 36-year-old North Carolina native has been playing Russian roulette with his musical style.
From honky-tonk, to a sci-fi metal concept album, to a few hip-hop tracks released on his website, Adams has wandered far from the alt-country genre he helped establish with his band, Whiskeytown, in the mid- to late-’90s. His prolificacy was legendary, averaging 1.3 albums a year. Then came a few books of poetry, followed by the announcement that he had sworn off touring altogether and was moving to the south of France with his new wife Mandy Moore.
Thankfully, the singer-songwriter has broken his word on touring, and his latest effort, Ashes & Fire, is a throwback to vintage Adams, full of all the heartbreak and acoustic guitar that made Elton John call him “a beautiful songwriter.” Fans rejoice: the prodigal son returns to the Rio Theatre on Oct. 17, as part of a sold-out series of solo dates on the West Coast.
Ashes & Fire opens uncharacteristically: instead of stomping out a shit-kicker first track, rife with cigarette smoke and pigeon-toed cowboy boots, Adams gives you the feeling you’ve stumbled into a deserted Nashville bar with “Dirty Rain,” a ballad remembering—but not longing for—a past love. For fans, it’s an invitation to fall back in love with the genius behind “When the Stars Go Blue,” as he croons: “Last time I was here you were waiting/ You ain’t waiting anymore.”
Throughout the album, Adams revisits the wide-open spaces of acoustic sound, augmented with organ and fresh string arrangements, explored on Gold. “I was ready to make some quieter music for a while,” he says.
To achieve that sound, Adams teamed up with producer Glyn Johns, known for his work with The Beatles and Bob Dylan. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench and singer Norah Jones also lend their talents to the album. But whether or not Ashes & Fire will launch the superstardom so many believe Adams is destined for, fame doesn’t hold the same appeal it once did. “It would have been interesting,” he says. “But I don’t write a song with that in mind. I write a song to be a better song—200,000 sales is an honest living.”
Songwriting helps keep Adams grounded, as he pens musical tales of the places he’s been. “I’d been a lonely person all my life, [so] I’d go to these places in the evening,” Adams says of the bars he’d frequent in New York, Nashville, and Los Angeles. “I liked the warmth of that environment, and everyone who had problems, they just disappeared.” Adams revisits these locations on his first single, “Lucky Now,” where he recalls black bags of trash in the snow, a city of neon, and how “the lights will draw you in/ And the dark will take you down/ And the night will break your heart/ But only if you’re lucky now.”
But it’s been 11 years since Heartbreaker, and Adams is no longer an inconsolable twenty-something. His signature longing is apparent in the closing track, “I Love You But I Don’t Know What to Say,” as he sings, “When the night is silent and we seem so far away/ Oh I love you but I don’t know what to say,” yet it’s a longing soothed. “It felt good to ask, ‘What am I really capable of?’” he says. “I’m hearing that and it’s shocking. I’m glad that it’s translating.”
Ryan Adams plays a SOLD OUT show at 8 p.m. Monday, Oct. 17, at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $36. For more information, call 423-8209. Photo: DavidBlack