“What am I?” sings Ryan Adams on “Save Me,” the eighth track from his October 11 release, Ashes & Fire. It’s a great question for an artist not short on mystique. His young career has been an exciting, if uneven, flurry of offerings accompanied by public struggles and a high profile marriage. He’s quite believable as the consummate cool musician—he looks and sounds like the prototype of someone versed in good music, who hangs out with interesting people, and has some killer covers to pull from his guitar case. But is he more than a pastiche of a classic singer-songwriter, more than a talented impression of a great voice in music?
Ashes & Fire doesn’t deliver on the promise many have seen in Adams. While Easy Tiger was a bit more anchored than his preceding work (the 29 album), this collection is just safe. There are plenty of intriguing moments, however. “Come Home” is a sincere tune, with the near-spoken title over a perfect country steel that serves as a beautiful chorus. Adams playfully sings of bullet holes in cars and dancing in the opener, “Dirty Rain,” while “Kindness” is an intensely soft lover’s plea for some cooperation. But the album simmers and never boils beyond quality love songs.
Twinges of the unconventional are reserved for spots like the moderately surprising outro on “Chains of Love.” Decent arrangements are held back by forgettable melodies (“Rocks” and the title track), or songs become uninteresting thanks to a healthy dose of cliché. Adams is content to use lines about the sun rising, standing by a lover and keeping them safe/warm, to go along with many metaphors dealing with the sky, night, and bodies of water.
The album’s best moments come at the climax and fall of “Do I Wait.” Wounded vocals lead into a clamor of frustration for a few bars—cluttered guitar, organ, drums, with a seeping-in refrain of voices begging “Do I wait?” This gives way to a delicate, poetic outro that sums up the expression conveyed throughout the song’s movements: “Do I wait / Here forever / For you / To ask?”
Though Ashes & Fire does little to whet the listener’s appetite, let alone fill it, it does feature strong musicianship all the way through. Good performances on the organ by Tom Petty keyboardist Benmont Tench (who really leaves his mark on the album), guitar strumming, piano, drums, couldn’t-care lead singing, and complementary backup vocals (including some from Norah Jones) make the whole thing quite listenable. It just won’t be that memorable. I give it a 1 out of 3 on my truth/goodness/beauty doohickey.