Three years isn’t an extraordinarily long wait between proper studio albums, but it speaks to Ryan Adams’ impressive prolificacy in the ’00s that Ashes & Fire feels like a long-awaited return after the break from recording and touring he took in the wake of 2008’s Cardinology. (Though even then, Adams didn’t exactly leave fans in the lurch: In 2010, he put out the metal side-project Orion and a previously unreleased album with the Cardinals, III/IV.) But even without Adams’ self-imposed “hiatus,” Ashes & Fire seems like a reset button for an erratic, unpredictable, and frequently great career. A collection of subdued love songs seemingly inspired by Adams’ calm, contented life with wife Mandy Moore, Ashes is everything Ryan Adams records usually aren’t: uniform in sound and mood, emotionally centered, and straight-arrow consistent, sometimes to its detriment.
It’s tempting to regard Ashes as Adams’ Harvest, an album of simple, country-flavored folk-pop songs that appear designed to charm those turned off by his tendency to veer wildly into the nearest ditch. The briskly strummed title track and the hushed, beautiful “Lucky Now” are crowd-pleasers that openly court comparisons to Adams’ most universally adored album, 2000’s Heartbreaker, rather than shirking them, as is his normal custom.
But even Harvest had an eccentric touch or two that Neil Young wielded with a skeptically cocked eyebrow; if Ashes has a shortcoming, it’s that all the jagged edges and spontaneous experiments of Adams’ past work have been smoothed over. The hominess of the album’s most explicit paeans to domestic life—“Come Home,” “Save Me,” “Kindness”—are awfully pretty, but they don’t have much weight or urgency to them; if anything, Adams sounds ready to curl back up on the couch at home for a few more years. Hopefully that won’t happen, because Adams’ feel for melody and expressive, heart-rending vocals remains unmatched among contemporary singer-songwriters. On Ashes, he’s emerged much happier and healthier than before, and pointed toward a long, bright musical future—if he chooses to pursue it.