Ryan Adams, folk rock and alt-country stalwart, and former Whiskeytown member, returns with his sixteenth album, Prisoner. It’s an impressive musical output since his debut solo album, Heartbreaker, was released in 2000. Two years on from his warmly received, and interesting, cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989, he returns with twelve originals.
Both 2015’s 1989 and his latest offering are thought to be heavily influenced by the breakdown of his marriage to Mandy Moore. But where 1989 offered a softer, more acoustic alternative to the glossy pop production of Swift’s original, Prisoner’s opening track, “Do You Still Love Me?”, is all guitar driven rock.
It begins with a haunting, fairly otherworldly organ, but this is quickly punctured by 80s inspired guitar and some tight drums, delivered by Johnny T. Yerrington.
The guitar and percussion has an angry quality to it, slightly snarling, but Adams’ vocal performance draws more from sorrow than anger, although there are touches of both. That said, there is still something anthemic about the song, although it’s not the sort to fill stadiums. But there is a singalong chorus, it’s easy to find yourself toe-tapping away to the guitar and percussion.
The title track, “Prisoner”, comes next, and it’s again guitar driven. However, the guitar is softer than in the preceding track. Soft twangs in place of the AOR rock riffs of “Do You Still Love Me?” intertwine with harmonicas to create a much more country vibe in “Prisoner”.
Adams’ vocal performance retains the sorrowful tones found on “Do You Still Love Me?”. Altogether, “Prisoner” is a gentler look at heartbreak than the rawer and angrier “Do You Still Love Me?”.
“Doomsday”, the album’s third track, opens with harmonica over guitar which initially suggests a continuation of the country style of “Prisoner”. However, it proves to be Yerrington’s drums that drive the song on, allowing Ryan Adam’s delicate vocals and intricate guitar work to rise and fall over the top of it.
Overall, “Doomsday” is a fine example of classic heartland rocker, it may not be the most inventive tune, but it’s well-crafted and provides an enjoyable listen. Adams’ lyrics also conjure vividly his grappling with the emotional pain of the end of his relationship.
“Haunted House”, which follows “Doomsday”, combines a fairly upbeat guitar and drum pattern with a melancholy vocal performance. The songs central metaphor is a little heavy handed, but good instrumentation makes up for that failing.
“Haunted House” is not one of the more memorable tracks from the album, but like the preceding “Doomsday”, it’s very listenable, and Adams’ vocals again convey the sense of despair and loss that pervade the album, without it becoming cloying.
The album’s fifth track is “Shiver And Shake” which is the most wrenching song on the album, quite an achievement considering the general tone of the LP. Lyrically and vocally is at his best.
Although lyrics such as “I reach out for your hand but I know it isn’t there” and “I close my eyes, I see you with some guy/Laughing like you never even knew I was alive” may seem simple, when coupled with Adams’ haunting delivery, they strike an emotionally resonant chord.
Moving on from the slow tempo “Shiver And Shake”, to the quicker “To Be Without You”, which sees Adams firmly commit to his country roots without losing the sombre tone of the record. There are hints of Lynyrd Skynyrd in the acoustic guitar that is at the heart of this song.
Indeed, the guitar is sufficiently mesmerising that unless really focusing, Adams’ lyrics fade into the background. But with guitar that’s lovely, and relaxed, there’s little reason to fight it. “To Be Without You” is a song to just let wash over you, and appreciate that Adams is back to doing what he does best; guitar.
“Anything I Say To You Now” goes back to the more rock and roll influenced music that the album began with in the shape of “Do You Still Love Me?”. But whilst there is nothing wrong with “Anything I Say To You Now”, it lacks the drive of “Do You Still Love Me?”. It’s not a bad song by any stretch of the imagination, but it feels slightly like a filler, particularly following on from the excellent “To Be Without You”.
“Breakdown” lets Adams’ vocals do most of the initial work. But when the guitars arrive they do so in a continuation of the rock influenced sound of the previous track. Adams experiments with guitar distortion on “Breakdown”, resulting in what is probably the most rock and roll track on the album. This rock and roll vibe is reinforced by a singalong chorus similar to the album’s opener.
In fact, Adams’ vocals borrow most heavily from the rock genre on this track, resulting in a harder, less fragile sound. Whilst that may sound like a jarring juxtaposition, it actually makes for a welcome change to have a more upbeat, rock and roll tune. It’s still not exactly jolly, but without it one feels the album might have become slightly wallowing.
“Outbound Train”, the ninth track, is perhaps the most lyric heavy song on the album, full of bitterness and regret as well as a heavy dose of scepticism, particularly in the “I was so sure, I was so bored/I was so bored, I was so bored/I don’t know anything anymore” post chorus. But the guitar and percussion is there to fill in the gaps, and keep the song chugging forward, much like the train its title evokes.
“Broken Anyway” is a song in which Adams’ vocals take centre stage, backed by fairly stripped back instrumentation. It’s also one of the weaker songs on the album. Although it is well-crafted, it feels like Adams is capable of more. “Tightrope”, the album’s second last track, is emblematic of what makes Ryan Adams so adept at producing anguish filled breakup albums.
“Tightrope” begins with the acoustic guitar and fragile Adams vocals that pervade the entire album. However, what makes “Tightrope” a really interesting listen is that Adams is able to combine keys, guitar and saxophone and have the result come out so sorrowful, without resorting to slow tempos and d-minor chords.
On the album’s final track, “We Disappear”, Ryan Adams once again uses guitar distortion, and again it is very effective. Overall, “We Disappear” is an effective album closer, serving to tie together the general theme of heartbreak that pervades Prisoner.
However, like much of the album, it is well-crafted and emotive, but it is missing that spark that would turn it into a truly great album like his debut, Heartbreaker. It rather feels that in Ryan Adams desire to create such a technically excellent album, both in terms of production and song-craft, that the emotion behind gets lost.
Overall Prisoner is a fine album and there’s a lot to recommend about it, but it lacks that visceral edge that is the hallmark of a classic. Ryan Adams’ Prisoner is available for purchase here.
Words by James Smith