The singer-songwriter quit music two years ago. But his new album, 'Ashes & Fire,' symbolizes his rebirth.
By August Brown, Los Angeles Times
October 9, 2011
Ménière's disease is an inflammation of the inner ear. Specifically, a swelling in the tubes of the ear canal that control the body's balance. No one knows its cause, but stress, exhaustion and substance abuse are among the factors thought to contribute. Its symptoms include nausea, physical disorientation and occasionally debilitating bouts of tinnitus and the loss of hearing at certain frequencies. There is no known treatment.
For an average person, Ménière's is irritating. For musicians, it can be the end of a livelihood, even a loss of their identity. Sounds actually disappear.
For the singer-songwriter Ryan Adams, who was diagnosed with the condition five years ago and crested during the final tours with his former backing band the Cardinals in 2009, it was a literal threat to his career. His new solo album "Ashes & Fire," out Tuesday, is proof he beat it, and his Oct. 10 show at Hollywood Forever Cemetery sold out in minutes. But at the time, the illness was a metaphor for the many ways he was losing balance.
After a run in the mid- to late-2000s when the famously productive yet erratic singer got sober, formed a steady band and made some of the most respected albums of a long career, everything unwound.
"You can go on steroids, painkillers or speed to treat the symptoms," Adams said, smirking at his own loose-cannon reputation (he's been drug- and booze-free since late 2005). "I tried one of those."
In 2009 he found himself without an outside record deal, and would soon be heartbroken from the death of a close grandmother and his band's bassist, with a hole in his hearing that wouldn't go away. He announced he was quitting music, which for a 36-year-old singer with 16 full-length records to his name, was akin to retiring from dinners.
But "Ashes & Fire," released on his own Pax AM label in partnership with Capitol, is a valediction for the time when he was one of the most famous screw-ups in music. It's an intimate, emotionally nuanced exploration of what it means to have a career seem to dissolve in self-abuse and self-doubt, and the humbling shock of finding a verdant home in Los Angeles in spite of it.
His new album is perhaps his sonically gentlest yet most emotionally strafed since his solo debut "Heartbreaker." Produced by veteran Glyn Johns, who worked with artists like the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Eagles, "Ashes & Fire" is a return to the powerfully intimate delivery style that made his reputation. It was all recorded live with few overdubs, with virtuoso low-key guests takes from Norah Jones and keyboardist Benmont Tench, of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
A walk around Adams' Hollywood recording studio is clear proof. Adams, notoriously irascible to journalists, greets guests amiably, dressed in red plaid and exquisitely mussed bangs. He bounds downstairs to show off the small rooms packed with vintage analog recording gear — a tape machine sourced from Motown's manufacturing unit; Fairchild compressors made famous by the Beatles and the studio reference monitors that recorded Metallica's "Master of Puppets" and Dokken's "Under Lock & Key," two of his many, many favorite records.
"He's older now, he's in a good place," said Jones, who sings on "Ashes" and has been a frequent Adams collaborator since 2005's "Jacksonville City Nights." "All these songs are very live and warm, and he's a never-ending well of ideas."
Its first single "Lucky Now" starts with one of his finest melodies to date atop a modest, perfectly recorded acoustic guitar. A lament for lost youth — and a quiet, subtle ode to his friend, Cardinals' bassist Chris Feinstein, who died in 2009 — it eventually inverts into a grateful message for the chance to feel anything deeply: "The night will break your heart, but only if you're lucky now."
Some tracks, like album leadoff "Dirty Rain," have a plain-spoken eloquence worthy of his hero and onetime collaborator Willie Nelson; others like "Invisible Riverside" have a gentle L.A. canyon-country psychedelia.
"These were real, complete songs — lyrics that surprise you, strong melodies, and great performances centered around a voice and guitar," Tench said. Playing together was "an immersion process. If a song's about loss or loneliness, his melodies will call that forth from you."
Recording the album was, in a way, Adams' test of faith in his own talents. "Long distance runners, they just do that, they prepare but they have to go on a journey with no control," Adams said. "I just keep running. I don't play golf, I don't have a pastime. Music is golf."
Its best moments are when Johns puts Adams close to a microphone and lets his voice — defiant yet chastened, like a seasoned punk rocker begging for quarters — do the heavy lifting. Album-closer "I Love You but I Don't Know What to Say" feels like a statement of devotion to his wife, the actress and singer Mandy Moore, a vow to protect their L.A. home together — and a sad prayer to his grandmother's death from stomach cancer — where "the night is silent and we seem so far away."
But this stable musical home base seemed impossibly distant just a few years ago.
After first earning attention in the proto-alt-country band Whiskeytown, Adams vaulted into international fame with two solo albums of bourbon-sodden, bummed-out folk-rock — 2000's "Heartbreaker" and 2001's "Gold" — that cemented his promise as one of country-rock's finest new voices. He was sideswiped by fame, taking on celebrity girlfriends, a publicized drug habit and a reactionary rock album, 2003's "Rock N Roll," written as a middle finger to his label, Lost Highway, which claimed that he was getting morbid and needed an editor (2002's odds-and-sods album "Demolition" was compiled from several label-rejected album sessions).
He confounded critics with several jokey rap and heavy-metal mix tapes released online, which toyed with the press' assumptions that he was a humorless, "authentic" alt-country troubadour. "I'm into clairvoyance and UFOs and ghosts. I'm a huge dork," he said. (In 2010, he released a sprawling full-length sci-fi-metal album "Orion.")
But leading up to 2005's "Cold Roses," he assembled the Cardinals, a band of session aces that would carry him through five albums worth of material often inspired by the Grateful Dead's rustic explorations. He even jammed on-stage with Phil Lesh.
The band gave him his most consistent group of collaborators and won him back many critics and fans. But tensions rose within the Cardinals on tours, leading to the departure of Adams' close friend, bassist Catherine Popper in 2006. The band dissolved after a 2009 show in Atlanta on bad terms.
"I'd make a suggestion, and they'd say I was complaining," Adams said. "We started playing with in-ear monitors and it just wasn't the same. Our friendships were [ruined], and I realized I didn't have to do this. After that last show, I just exhaled."
After the breakup, Cardinals' drummer Brad Pemberton told the website Stereokill that "you can't fix the engine while the car is speeding down the road, ya' know? Everyone was a bit fried, so it was the right time to step back for a minute. I encouraged Ryan to go and get married, and have a life and find some peace."
Adams now tours alone, with just an acoustic guitar for two-hour sets from his deep catalog. Meanwhile, Adams wrapped up his deal with Lost Highway, which famously shelved (and bisected into EPs) the tracks that became his 2004 album "Love Is Hell" as too commercially difficult. The relationship remains a raw spot for him.
"I'd had such a long spell of negative press," he said, leaning deep into a rolling chair. "[The label] were spineless losers. They abandoned me when the press did."
In a statement to The Times, Luke Lewis, the chairman of UMG Nashville and Lost Highway, said, "Ryan was with us for almost 10 years, and after fulfilling his contractual obligations to the label he decided to move on. I have many fond memories of those years and will always think of Ryan as an amazing artist who I am happy and proud to have known and been associated with. We continue to wish him the best and look forward to hearing more of his great work."
Suddenly Adams was in the same position as when his career started. Adams writes songs at a rate unseen since the Brill Building (he cut three full-lengths, including a double-album, in 2005 alone). After years in New York, he moved to Los Angeles in late 2008. Quitting music was a kind of detox session for a creative setting that he felt left him physically and psychically ill.
He availed himself of Los Angeles' myriad alternative medicines — including one therapy that will shock those who still mistakenly imagine him cracking a bottle of Maker's Mark, writing a couple of albums by breakfast and not seeing sunshine for a week — hiking in L.A.'s mountain vistas.
"I did a lot of alternative therapies, acupuncture and hypnosis," Adams said. "I'd walk the trails up to Dante's Peak in Griffith Park. I quit smoking, started taking vitamin D. California healed me up."
It seemed to work for him, and the Ménière's subsided. But writing still refused to come easily. Songs started and halted; others followed clichéd paths. He wondered if his particularly generous muse had finally changed the locks on him, and his streak of self-loathing renewed.
But on a couch in his studio's mixing room, he cited a new source for inspiration — the sense he'd been one-upped. This time, by the young English singer-songwriter Laura Marling, whose 2010 album "I Speak Because I Can" left him reeling.
"I did feel competitive with Laura and the seriousness of her writing," Adams said. "I had the pieces but no puzzle, and had to get back to an earlier truth."
Still, the time off and the insecurity of his new solo setting left him uncertain about recording new songs. It took Johns — father of producer Ethan Johns, who recorded Adams' first solo albums and 2005's "29" — to talk him back into recording.
"He performs from the heart and believes everything he's written," Glyn Johns said. But "he's a very complex character, one of the funniest people I've ever met and always a consummate gentleman. On one hand, as a producer, personal lives are none of your business, but it's all about presenting an artist in the best light, and should you be invited to do so, that sometimes falls in your jurisdiction."
In a way, "Ashes & Fire" is an album of L.A. domesticity — "I Love You But" is the closest he'll come to writing an "Oh Yoko!" The album's title and lyrics are rife with images of Los Angeles and its perpetual habit of rebirth by fire — a subject Adams knows well.
In 2001, around the time of "Gold," his city of possibility and potential was New York — he shot his video for the song "New York, New York" mere days before 9/11, just as his turn in the mainstream spotlight was beginning. But on "Ashes," L.A. is a stand-in for the better place he's found himself, both musically and physically. The album follows an arc that ends with him finally accepting that, in spite of everything and for reasons he doesn't fully understand, he's loved.
But it's also the one thing Adams won't talk about. In the middle of a conversation, he checks his phone and frantically texts back to Moore. "It's the what-time-are-you-going-to-be-home-for-dinner text," he says, sounding like any husband in America.
But when asked about how he values his home life amid a musical reinvention, it's the one topic — unlike black metal, narcotics or vintage compressors — that he still keeps a protective edge over.
He demurs, and briefly raises those old hackles of suspicion — "I feel like you're trying to answer that question for me" — before giving an answer both obvious and yet humbly insightful at once.
It's as if the possibility of a life in a real home is a frequency he's just now learned to hear.
"When a young man or a woman are wise, they find a balance early on," Adams said. "I was not one of those people. But I'm learning."