The fact that Ryan Adams is still getting press is a good example of everything wrong with our current critical climate with regards to music.
Here is a man seemingly incapable of hearing a song without writing one that sounds just like it. (Have you heard the new single ‘Lucky Now’? It sounds like ‘Used Cars’ by Bruce Springsteen.) His back catalogue is less a product of inspiration and more an indicator of what he was listening to the day he wrote a particular song. “Shapeshifting” was the word Pitchfork used to describe him recently, a laughable description for somebody whose “shapeshifting” seems to consist of deciding whether to sound like the country-rock of Neil Young or the country-rock of the Stones. Perhaps that’s unfair, seeing as he sometimes sounds like country-rock Dylan, country-rock Creedence and country-rock Grateful Dead. (Just to round things out, he sometimes sounds like The Replacements as well). When I say “sounds like” and “country-rock” I mean in a third-rate bar-band kind of way, in an Eagles kind of way. His lyrics contain all the trite profundity of Jackson Browne or James Taylor, peppered as they are with cheap Dylanisms and hokey, homespun observations of the kind Don Henley would assuredly endorse.
New album Ashes & Fire is his first proper album in a couple of years. With some tragedy, a recent marriage, and apparent sobriety all happening since his last release, this album is undoubtedly supposed to show some maturity on Adams’ part as he communicates some hard-earned wisdom from a life of excess, as well as the joys and sorrows of love. As expected, Adams stretches the cliché beyond breaking point until it becomes pointless mentioning which lyrics are the worst. They are all terrible, they are all bereft of inspiration, and they all take banality to hitherto unknown regions. The name of the first track is ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’. Do you believe me? Would you care if it were? ‘Dirty Rain’ is the song’s actual title, which is almost as bad. The lyrics are garbage, not even worth discussing. To those who take delight in the English language, stay well away from this album. The words have died of boredom before they have even left the singer’s lips. The words are corpses, rotting and putrid. Steer clear.
I would talk about the songs individually but there is no point. It would be like talking about the intricacies of a Nora Roberts romance novel. Given how prolific Adams is, and the fact that he has been writing the same song since day one, the Nora Roberts comparison is more than apt. There are no intricacies on this album. There is only human emotion reduced to prepackaged, predictable and comforting soundbites. When I say comforting, I don’t mean it in a warm, loving way. I mean it in the way empty, sexless relationships where neither partner wants to leave the other are comforting. Cold comfort. Comfort for the afraid or the emotionally dead.
The music is for the most part subdued. In other words the Replacements influence is non-existent. There are songs on this album called ‘New Kid In Town’, ‘Rocks’, and ‘Chains of Love’. If you’re wondering whether that’s true I would ordinarily see that as a problem. The bigger problem, however, is that two of those songtitles are real. Which ones? Does it matter? Does anyone give a fuck? Certainly not critics. I can almost see the forthcoming reviews for this album, overflowing with words like “soulful” and “hushed”. You’re probably going to see “maturity” in there, perhaps “aching”, almost certainly “intimate”. Did I mention that Norah Jones provides some backing vocals? I’m sure nobody else but Ryan’s close personal friend Norah could have provided these songs with that extra bit of soul, though maybe Emmylou was busy.
You still want to know what the songs sound like? They sound exactly how you would imagine them to sound. The title track is a ragged folk-waltz, ‘Kindness’ is a lush testament to the healing power of love, ‘Save Me’ is an intimate country-rock lament … look I can’t play this game anymore. This album is awful. It is beyond awful. It is a waste of your time. Believe me; you can do much better than this. You deserve better. I am truly sorry if you think the things Ryan Adam describes on Ashes & Fire are real emotions. They are not. They are the words of a person whose imagination is comatose; it is the poetry of the mundane. We are all in the gutter, but that does not mean we have to drink from it.
Ryan Adams has bought into every rock’n'roll cliché imaginable and shamelessly parades them with each new album. You know the fucker is hoping for a divorce so he can have his own Blood On The Tracks. Did he not make enough money appearing in those Gap commercials? Must he ape his record collection for the next 30 years? We don’t need another Jackson Browne. We didn’t even need the first one. This album thinks it’s Tonight’s The Night by Neil Young, but it’s really Night Moves by Bob Seger. Conservative, hackneyed, and dull beyond belief, Ashes & Fire is overflowing with everyman heartbreak, and it is surely only a matter of time before that exclusive Rolling Stone interview where Adams puts his heart on his sleeve about death, love, and the ingredients of a classic album. Fuck this bullshit. Enjoying Ashes & Fire means you are dying internally. It means you are already reducing your emotions to easily compartmentalised, sentimental shadows of real emotions. Don’t die. We need you here among the living, and we need you here right now with your complicated, unclassifiable emotions. Ashes & Fire is a gravestone for your heart, but I don’t think you’re ready for the cemetery just yet. Let Ryan Adams have his Rolling Stone front cover and his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dreams. Your inner life deserves more than pitiable scraps of empty baby-boomer sentiment regurgitated for the new millennium. Please trust me on that.
(This review originally appeared on Collapse Board)