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For an artist with such noted prolificacy as Ryan Adams, the release of another album has the tendency to pass the world at large without note. Few outside his hardcore fanbase will be aware he released a solo metal record, Orion, last year; or that in the 11 years since his lauded debut Heartbreaker he's now released a dozen albums, either solo or with his band The Cardinals.
Such frequency of output can often compromise quality control, and to an extent Ryan has suffered from his casual fans burning out - the man once heralded by many as the greatest songwriter of his generation has yet to capitalise on the promise shown by the magnificent brace of albums he started his post-Whiskeytown career with. While dashes of his finest work appear on Love Is Hell (2004), Cold Roses (2005) and 29 (2005), a natural continuation of the rooted-in-country, heart-on-sleeve songwriting of his earliest albums has never really surfaced since. Until now.
That's not to say Ashes & Fire sounds as if it comes straight out of 2001. This is the work of a sober, thoughtful Adams, rediscovering himself. Opener Dirty Rain heralds a chorus vocal as confident as one will find in his entire catalogue. With the track stripped to its core instrumentation, Adams' voice soars - and one can't help but recall the same rush of blood from first hearing Winding Wheel or Firecracker.
The title-track stands up next to some of Ryan's finest material, representing a clear highlight alongside the sombre, late-album gem Kindness. The former number is the closest this record comes to a fist-raising sing-along anthem; while the latter delivers the female-backed, introspective country'n'organ jam that made Heartbreaker so achingly special.
It would do the record a disservice, however, if the shimmering guitars and driving kick drums of the set's mid-section weren't celebrated. Chains of Love oozes the same style that made Love Is Hell a cult classic, and saves this collection from a slump at the moment where his previous efforts have often faltered.
Ashes & Fire is the sound of Ryan Adams replacing himself amongst music's most revered. If you've not had the patience or time to commit to an album of his since 2001's Gold, his acclaimed second LP, there has not been a better time to do so. This is an album that delivers more and more with every listen, showcasing an artist maturing with grace and poise.