No longer ruled by the ear-splitting pain and the drug jags that seemed to go hand-in-hand with his rise to become alt-country's biggest star, Ryan Adams returns to the fore with an album which could very well be his best yet.
Ryan Adams is the first to admit he has a lot to be thankful for. Speaking from his apartment in Los Angeles on a warm Tuesday evening, he is surprisingly open about his internal state of being, reflecting honestly on some major changes in his life and exceedingly confident, as usual, about the direction he's traveling in.
As Adams himself attests, one of the major hurdles braved in recent years was dealing with the diagnosis of Ménière's disease, a degenerative disorder of the inner ear affecting hearing and balance.
"So much normal everyday stuff I was doing just exacerbated the disease. You're not supposed to smoke, you're not supposed to drink coffee or be stressed or eat salty foods," he explains, "It was hard."
His condition deeply affected his life as a musician. Though he has never missed a gig because of the pain, he admits to playing some "really horrible shows" and cutting them short because there was "very little I could do to keep going".
Eventually, the self-described "unrelenting pain" led to his public announcement that he was quitting the music business in 2009 to deal with the condition. For more than two years, Adams' movements remained a mystery to the bulk of his admirers. The Internet buzzed with queries and speculations from curious and concerned fans, but Adams remained doggedly elusive to the public eye.
Ending his musical hiatus with the releases of heavy metal concept record Orion and a double album with his band The Cardinals, III/IV, the alt-country superstar was "ready and excited" to release his latest solo studio album Ashes & Fire.
The success of Adam's current tour - reviews from the UK leg of the tour have been ecstatic - and his satisfaction with his splendid new record are fine and all. But Mr. Adams seems to care most deeply that he has finally reconciled his musical ambitions with more personal ones: to live in Los Angeles, be part of both a family and a band, remain sober (it's been nearly five years since he kicked a punishing addiction to amphetamines and alcohol) and live out a simulacrum of normalcy.
As Adams himself attests, Ashes & Fire would have been "impossible to make" had he not been able to change his life.
No longer the tortured artist whose only steady companions were speedballs (referring to the cocktail of heroin and cocaine that killed John Belushi and River Phoenix, among others) and the demons they were meant to tame, Adams keeps his tour jaunts short and his family (including wife of two years, actress/singer Mandy Moore) close.
It's not that he wears the success and stability like a loose garment - he's a pretty complicated guy on a good day - but unlike the rock trope that only chronic agony produces important music, the absence of mayhem has been good for his work, he says. Adams has a Southern lack of pretension that is easy to be around, but he is a less than voluble interview, not because he doesn't try to answer questions, but precisely because he does. He cares about being understood but often struggles to explain himself because, as all writers will tell you, happy is nice, but happy is hard to explain.
"I feel good," he says simply, "I don't know what more I can say that that."
This is the environment that has produced Ashes & Fire, a new album of heartbreaking, beautiful songs that pick over the embers of his wilder life in a mood of becalmed, mature contentment - qualities that can spell trouble in music, but which here have produced possibly the album of his career.
"I learnt a long time ago not to preoccupy myself with that stuff," he says of the recent acclaim. "But I am glad that it's translating. I had a nice time making the record."
According to Adams, the legendary producer Glyn Johns took control, which allowed the singer to relax.
"I worked with Glyn's son Ethan, who is also a producer, back in the late nineties when I was playing as a part of a band called Whiskeytown," Adams explains, "We stayed in contact over the years and when I was looking for someone Glyn just seemed a natural choice.
"Glyn's spent his career working with some amazing musicians - he recorded the Get Back sessions for The Beatles, he was the man who originally recorded Let It Be," Adams continues, an unmistakable sense of awe present in his voice, "I've a huge respect for him as a producer."
In late 2011, the greatest indie-rock comeback story of all time continues apace: with Ashes & Fire already generating arguably the best critical notices of his career to date, Adams has embarked on two legs of American dates - the longest tour he has embarked on in many years - and recently announced his first solo tour of Australia and New Zealand for early next year.
BY JENNIFER PETERSON-WARD
Ashes & Fire is out now through Pax Am/Sony. The Melbourne leg of Ryan Adams' first ever Australian tour reaches the Regent Theatre on Saturday March 3, 2012.