Ryan Adams: Ashes & Fire
I feel like somebody I don’t know
Are we really who we used to be?
Am I really who I was?
~Ryan Adams, “Lucky Now”
I spent the better part of several years (from 2000-2004) working on a big project in Kansas City, Missouri. I tend to associate that time with Ryan Adams, as I was listening to him a lot then. My co-workers liked him, too, and my memories of KC include his music (Whiskeytown stuff, Heartbreaker and Gold) as a part of the soundtrack. The KC assignment went away, and over time I became less enamored with Mr. Adams. Part of it was that his music moved in directions that I didn’t want to go, but part of it was his unsettling erratic behavior.
I can track the high and low points in my Ryan Adams journey with two live performances (both outdoors). The first was in KC, in 2002. Mr. Adams opened for Alanis Morissette at the Starlight Theatre. I had tickets in the back, but a guy outside offered to let me trade up to 4th row for $20. I did it, a little bit scared I was getting hoodwinked, but not to worry, the tickets were legit. Mr. Adams started his show with Come Pick Me Up. Though that song had been out a couple of years, most of the crowd who came to hear Ms. Morissette didn’t know it. As they figured out that he was singing about stealing his records and screwing his friends “with a smile on your face” they started to realize that maybe the warm-up band had something to offer. Mr. Adams put on quite a show, playing lots of Gold and Heartbreaker tunes. Another thing I remember about that evening was Mr. Adams coming out during Ms. Morissette’s set and sitting by a monitor on the right hand side of the stage to watch her play. A couple of years later, the Kansas City Star said this: “The last time Ryan Adams was in town, he opened for Alanis Morissette at Starlight Theatre. Maybe it was the early start, but whatever the reason, Adams was in rare (sober) form that night, and he put on a fabulous show that nearly eclipsed the headliner’s.” Exactly.
Fast forward to 2008, Mr. Adams and The Cardinals are at Telluride. I had my doubts. As I said, he had lost me somewhere along the way, but I remained hopeful that he would respect the sensibilities of this particular event and do an acoustic set, maybe focus on the older stuff. He didn’t. In my view, his appearance at Telluride was a disaster. Not that it matters, but I’m pretty sure he had a barrette in his hair. Or maybe it was the way he had it styled, as Craig Shelbourne said that his hair “stuck out like an over-brushed Barbie doll.” But we didn’t come to see his hair, we came to hear him sing. And by the time the big gig came, he was just too punk to play. [Sorry, REK, couldn’t resist.] Mr. Adams didn’t even stand in the middle of the stage, just plugged in over on the side, near the back and played as electric a show as he and the Cardinals could play (which is pretty electric). Dylan at Newport, it wasn’t.
Earlier this year, I caught a clue that something good might be up with Mr. Adams. A video of his surprise appearance with Emmylou Harris in L.A. surfaced, and I found myself thinking that maybe the old guy that I liked so much was back, even if temporarily.
Here we are in September, 2011, and I’m streaming Ashes & Fire via NPR.org. The record is set for release in a couple of weeks. It’s back to the future, a new, old Ryan Adams, an album that, per a tweet from Jason Isbell, is enjoyable for “the room it creates.” Nice phraseology from someone who knows how to create a room, and it’s correct. The record feels really good. The songs are all singer-songwriter stuff. It may be the quietest, calmest record of his career. Producer Glyn Johns has mixed in just the right sounds, and a lot of those sounds come from keyboardist Benmont Tench. As I often say about a good record, you can just put it in and pour the wine, your friends will like it fine. Top cuts for me are Dirty Rain (“Now I’m looking through the rubble, trying to find out who we were. Last time I was here it was raining, it ain’t raining anymore.), Invisible Riverside (the song has a really nice groove) and the first single, Lucky Now (quoted above).
How’d we get there and back again? How did the good old stuff become the good new stuff? There are some clues in this piece by Dave Simpson of The Guardian. Mr. Simpson reports that the drug use is over, even as Mr. Adams points out that a lot of what was said about that was “exaggerated” while acknowledging that he “couldn’t drink unless [he] found cocaine” while denying that he was living a Scarface existence. He says the serious drug use was mainly in 2005-2006, but denies that he was ever “overcome by heroin” while conceding opium use that supposedly helped his creativity. Anyway, summarizing all that reminds me of the unsettling erraticism mentioned above, which is where he was, not where he is, since he is now apparently clean and sober. [I recommend that you read Mr. Simpson’s article as opposed to relying on my summary. It’s a nice piece of music journalism, by the way.]
There’s something else going on here. Mr. Adams has grown up. He’s no longer the guy in his mid-twenties pulling a pretty amazing solo career out of the disintegration of Whiskeytown with Manhattan as his world and the world as his oyster. How would each of us do in that mind-blowing situation? He’s 36 now, married to Mandy Moore (who sings a bit on the new record) and in a pretty good place. Take a look at this video of an in-studio live performance of the title song:
Was Ryan Adams really who he used to be? Based on Ashes & Fire, it appears that he was, and that there’s more of what I hoped for after Heartbreaker and Gold. Really nice to have him back, for however long he wants to stay.
Mando Lines is on Twitter @mando_lines.