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Ryan Adams

You wouldn’t be able to tell that Ryan Adams has been struggling with Meniere’s disease (a hearing disorder) from the delicate narratives his smooth voice paints over a minimal guitar on Ashes & Fire.

In this solo album recorded without the Cardinals in his home studio in Los Angeles, Adams does not forget his Southern, North Carolina roots. Unlike the complex jumble of instruments and vocals in his heavy metal solo album Orion, or his last overbearingly country studio album III/IV with the Cardinals, Ashes & Fire is stripped of distractions in order to focus on Adams’ clear, mellow voice, poignant guitar and the occasional Norah Jones piano accompaniment.

The continuity of the album is evident in the progression of songs, starting with a retrospective look at Adams’ youth in North Carolina, apparently as chaotic as the images of natural disaster he describes on “Dirty Rain.” Songs like the album’s self-titled single “Ashes & Fire” and the short number “Chains of Love” break from the serious depictions of home for more upbeat, nostalgic memories—and “Come Home” is downright homesick. “Invisible Riverside” stands out geographically from the alt-country aesthetic with its invokation of the ocean view near Sunset Boulevard. The lyrics “If the stars fall into the oceanside/Someone pull the ribbons from my eyes/Free my soul, let it roll away,” and the stoic guitar evince a more melancholy Jack Johnson.

Perhaps the lyrics blend with the guitar too well at points—so much that Mandy Moore’s voice emerges into prominence from the background. It’s no coincidence that Adams includes his wife; after all, they are singing about how delicate and uncertain their love and its future is. The tone is hopeful yet fragile, and with the unexpectedly revealing “I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say,” Adams ends the narrative of his thirteenth studio album open-ended.

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