Flying solo again after the disbanding his ace backing band, the Cardinals, Ryan Adams goes full-on into sensitive troubadour mode on Ashes & Fire. That so many countless singer-songwriter types have attempted to imitate Adams's style is one of the primary reasons the Americana genre has become so ungodly dour and self-serious, and Ashes & Fire is, in many ways, a prototypical Americana record. It's really only the quality of Adams's songwriting that elevates the album above its stale genre trappings and keeps it from sounding like Adams is phoning it in.
At his best, Adams can craft a unique, indelible image and can turn a devastating phrase. Opener "Dirty Rain" puts a distinctive twist on the pathetic fallacy, with observations about the gloomy weather cast against wistful memories of a romance that's run its course: "You and I were out there dancin' in the dirty rain." The title track is a straight-up Bob Dylan pastiche right down to Adams's off-key, throaty vocal, but it's the images ("And the bums on the Bowery/They were swallowed in lights/As cars rumbled by in the night/Screamin', 'Run for your life'") and a fantastic bit of church-piano backing from Benmont Tench that make the song a worthy addition to Adams's extensive catalogue. Selective editing has never been his strength, but the songs here make for one of his most cohesive and consistent sets.
The problem, then, is one of execution. Producer Glyn Johns interprets the songs in a manner that is far duller than Adams's distinctive images deserve, and the singer does nothing to create any real tension in his performances. The lonesome steel guitar that floats through the background on "Come Home" is lovely but utterly predictable, as is the Hammond B3 organ on "Kindness." On "Rocks," Adams seems to strum his acoustic guitar with only the last few cells of his fingertips and he barely raises his voice above a whisper, singing the refrain in a delicate falsetto: "I am not rocks/I am not rain/I'm just another shadow/In the stream." "Chains of Love" (sadly, not an Erasure cover, which might have given the album the jolt of energy it so desperately needs) at least kicks up the tempo a bit and has a bridge that builds to a crescendo that, in an otherwise low-key context, passes for dramatic.
Ultimately, it isn't that Adams can't pull off an introspective, mellow tone. Some of his best songs actually paint in the deepest shades of blue, but Ashes & Fire lacks any creative spark in its presentation of Adams's melancholy material, making for an album that sounds every bit as boring as most contemporary Americana albums sound. Adams's songwriting may be as sharp as ever and better edited than it ever has been, but Ashes & Fire makes some terrific songs sound impossibly bland.