review: Marla Cantrell
Ryan Adams has broken hearts, had his heart broken, and made a career writing songs that capitalize on both sides of that coin. He’s best known for his alternative country music, but he’s also made a name playing rock and heavy metal. His voice, on his more mellow songs, is reminiscent of Neil Young. His writing, prolific. In one interview he talked about his dedication, how he walked around with a guitar slung over his shoulder, loose-leaf binder in his hands. He said he wrote songs the way other people journal.
This practice helped him through his greatest struggles, including a serious illness (Ménière’s disease, which attacks the inner ear and affects hearing and balance) that threatened to take him out of the music business altogether, and the death of his girlfriend, Carrie Hamilton, comedian Carol Burnett’s daughter, who died from cancer in 2002. In the months after, as he was grieving, Adams wrote one of his best albums, Love is Hell, released in 2004.
But it’s this acoustic-based, folksy album, Ashes & Fire, that highlights the best of this performer. It’s a warm album, compelling, the kind of music you turn to when you feel nostalgic, or when you need to unwind.
This collection starts with “Dirty Rain,” a song that showcases keyboardist Benmont Tench from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. It’s so full of emotion, so perfect for Adams, it’s hard to imagine how the album could get any better.
It does get better, though. The next song, the title track, is a backwoods number that Adams owns. “Her skin smelled like black cherry blossom perfume, the sail boats they all sailed by, and the river she cried” he sings. “Her eyes were indigo and the cats were all calico … and a river she cried.”
“I Love You But I Don’t Know What to Say” is a beautiful, melancholy number. Adams’ voice trembles, the chords play out, the lyrics resonate. There’s a bit of a 1970s feel to many of these songs.
“Lucky Now,” “Do I Wait,” and “Rocks,” all have roots in an earlier era. That they play well now is part of Adams’ genius. His voice, his writing, his compositions, all these things make this album feel like a classic.
It doesn’t hurt that Norah Jones shows up on “Chains of Love,” and Adams’ wife, actress Mandy Moore, makes an appearance, singing harmony. It’s likely that this was one of Moore’s last forays into Adams’ music, since she reportedly filed for divorce in January, after six years of marriage. (They tied the knot in Savannah, Georgia, on March 9, 2009.)
If forty-year-old Adams is still carrying around loose leaf binders, if he still slings a guitar over his shoulder — just in case — it’s possible there will be a new wave of songs coming from this latest heartbreak. The North Carolina native seems to have an unending well of stories to tell, in a way that only he can tell them. And that’s incredibly good news for us.