Ashes & Fire, Ryan Adams’ thirteenth studio album, achieves a quieter and more meditative sound than its predecessors without being boring. Despite its flaws and noticeable lack of busy background music and the Cardinals, there are a few strong tracks more than worth listening to, especially at the beginning and end of the album.

Though Adams’ wilder days may be far behind him, he is still interesting to watch as he matures and goes through yet another stylistic metamorphosis, this one the result of hiatus from the music industry and a rare ear condition that has kept him off balance, both figuratively and literally. What has emerged is a softer, more independent Adams than fans have come to expect.

Since the first track, “Dirty Rain,” acts as a showcase for Adams’ range and ability to convey emotion, it’s no surprise that it’s the strongest performance on the album. Adams uses a lower register to sing the shocking and saddening bridge (“Last time I was here you were waiting/You ain’t waiting anymore”) before launching himself into the desperate and spiritual refrain (“So/May the wind blow/May the moonlight know your name”). The result is a story scarce in detail, though powerful nonetheless, built on bittersweet memories.

After experiencing a rebirth of sorts on the quietly cheerful “Rocks,” Adams returns to his energetic form for “Do I Wait” with fantastic results. After a slow, melodic build up, Adams allows the guitar to explode while his voice fades into the background. The style might not fit with the rest of the album, but on an emotional level, the outburst makes perfect sense in the face of the frustration and doubt Adams expresses up to that point in the song’s lyrics.

Adams struggles through the middle of the album, however, never managing to balance emotion, melody and lyrics in the same song. The best example of this may be the title track. Though Adams uses horrifying imagery and describes a river of tears, the song sounds almost upbeat. It’s not until his final two tracks, “Lucky Now” and “I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say,” that Adams once again hits his stride.

“Lucky Now” is a soft, acoustic, guitar-driven song that tries to put a positive spin on a fading love in a dark, cold world. “The lights will draw you in/And the dark will bring you down/And the night will break your heart/But only if you’re lucky now,” sings Adams, managing to evoke warm emotions in a song that describes a polluted snowscape and fading memories.

Adams closes with “I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say,” an awkwardly sweet love song that takes full advantage of his vocal range. Even as he searches for the right line, Adams is able to put enough emotion into his somewhat cliched attempts to make them sound new and convincing.

Tracks to check out: “Dirty Rain,” “Do I Wait,” “Lucky Now”
“Lucky Now” is already available as a single.

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