[PAX AM; 2011]

There aren’t many artists who are beyond music reviews, whose fan base is so solid that they will follow them over any hurdle, through any tunnel, beyond any sci-fi metal concept album. But, Ryan Adams has built a career out of being unabashedly himself, quick to turn the tables and publicly attack critics who question his work, unflinchingly recording Vampire Weekend covers on the MacBook and releasing them over Facebook, unafraid of blogging every moody twist and turn in his life. And, at a point somewhat recently, things changed. Adams got married to the adorably together Mandy Moore and suddenly slowed his release pattern down, and early indications from Ashes & Fire had both critics and fans eagerly anticipating a new Ryan Adams album for the first time in what seems like forever.

Getting back to my original point, regardless of what I say, you know right now how you are going to feel about the new Ryan Adams record. If you thought you would love it before you heard it, you will undoubtedly love it. If you scowled at the idea of a ‘return to creative form’ from the once-sad-now-happy singer, then you will unlikely be impressed by the effort. Ashes & Fire is whatever you want it be, and for those of us that have any inclination toward heavy-handed, over-produced, sentimental songwriting that is never dull and always easy on the ears, Ashes & Fire is exactly the comeback album we have been hoping for since Heartbreaker and Gold were never followed up with the promise that the former-Whiskeytown singer had given us.

That isn’t to say that Ashes & Fire isn’t commendable throughout. The record is riddled with numbers that highlight Adams’ strengths: emotional directness, familiar but not too familiar melodies, arrangements that punctuate every lyrical implication with tasteful firmness. And when he is successful, nobody does it better than Adams. “Lucky Now” is the kind of song that takes one listen to know that Ryan Adams has recorded another perfect song (and he already has a few). “Do I Wait” takes longer to unfold, actually seeing the full-band setup work as more than just decoration and heightening the song by its conclusion. “Dirty Rain” showcases Adams vocal range, hitting the high notes in the chorus that the audience may have forgotten he was capable of. And these are just a few examples from an album that does not lack in memorable songs.

Even at its weakest moments, Ashes & Fire still struggles to not be likable. “Kindness” borderlines on sappy sentimentality, but can’t shake the fact that at its heart, it is still a truly beautiful song. “Chains Of Love” also walks a tightrope, seeming to rattle Adams’ high taste level (for this album, at least), but undeniable in its foot-tap-inducing ability. And the title track causes an eye roll by forcing the rhyme “her eyes were indigo / the cats were all calico” (made even more frustrating by the fact that the line doesn’t even follow the same rhyme pattern as the previous verse), but the lighthearted romp that the song is allows for such diversions.

All in all, Ryan Adams manages to escape Ashes & Fire unscathed, avoiding his own biggest enemy from previous works: himself. See, when Adams gets away from his wheelhouse of pretty love songs, the territory gets a little murky and albums of forgettable material are created. We don’t want Adams to rock, we want him to create music we can play around our girlfriends to make us seem like more sensitive people than we really are. Or, maybe deep down we all really love a little bit of self-reflective alt-country. Either way, Ryan Adams has delivered the goods right now and he appears to be more focused and in a better creative space than he has at any other point in his career.