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.
FOR THE RECORD:
Ryan Adams: An article in the Oct. 9 Calendar section about Ryan Adams said the singer suffered from Meniere's disease, an inflammation of the inner ear for which there is no known treatment. There is no known cure for the ailment, but there are treatments that can often relieve the symptoms. —
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).