So it’s October 2011, and Ryan Adams has returned from what seems like an eternity to the casual listener.  I, however, am not that casual listener and was quite satiated last year by the Cardinals double-album III/IV and a release by R.A.’s heavy metal side project, Orion.

Ashes & Fire is a return to form for Ryan Adams, the solo artist, though.  11 new tracks soaked in coffee, cigarettes, a few late night beers and a whole lot of 70’s rock influence.  It’s also, perhaps, the most subdued record Adams has released to date.  This is not to say it’s a completely un-rocking affair.  Off-and-on collaborator Benmont Tench (yes…of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers fame…) plays on the majority of this album and his work at the keys on the album’s title cut and the tracks “‘Do I Wait”,  and “Invisible Riverside” occasionally outshines Adams himself and they add a color to the entire album that truly sets it aside from past works.

At other times, it’s simply Adams himself starting off at the piano, like on ‘Come Home,’ – a truly classic country-western ballad that would not have been out of place on either Cold Roses or Easy Tiger.  If there was any rust from Adams’ brief step away from the spotlight, it’s not evident here.  There is a timeless quality of this music that is not easily replicated.  “Rocks” exemplifies this in how close it sounds as if it could’ve come directly from the Neil Young archives.

The lyrics are still strong too.  Adams leads off ‘Invisible Riverside’ with: ‘Guess I’ll show my hand/either way  I’m losing/Used to have a clue/but I couldn’t use it…’ the turns of phrases are still there and tickle one’s thoughts as they ruminate over love, life and the pursuit of just getting by.

The back half of the album really revs up the engines as the songs continually get stronger.  My favorite song on the album has to be “Kindness”, which fits right into his overall catalog as a classic Ryan Adams song.  Beautiful lyrics, underlying keys, backing vocals from Norah Jones and a crooning Adams asking ‘Do you believe in love?’  How can one not when a grizzly hard-partying bad boy like Adams found Mandy Moore?

“Lucky Now” sounds like something that could’ve been featured on TP and the Heartbreakers overly sunny ‘She’s The One,’ soundtrack, and to be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if ends up on a soundtrack somewhere as the chorus and Fleetwood Mac-like guitar work makes this little song work extremely well.

The album closes with “I Love You But I Don’t Know What to Say…” a spare drum beat behind a simple piano ballad (at times evoking Randy Newman) that brings the entire body of work full circle.  One only hopes this album is heavily tour supported and serves as catalyst for more output to come.  Welcome back, Ryan.

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