Album review: Ryan Adams – Prisoner

Ryan Adams

Alt-country raconteur Ryan Adams’ newly released album Prisoner follows up the tepidly received 1989. His re-imagining of Taylor Swift’s album of the same title was generally regarded as a fun idea on paper, less so in practice. But that’s not to say that it doesn’t hit the mark.

Prisoner serves to highlight an enjoyable part of Adams’ career through the years, firstly the release of a genuinely great album that’s widely applauded, followed up with artistic experimentations in varying degrees of commercial success that either gain a cult-like appreciation or at the very least allow Adams’ to scratch some artistic itch. It’s a rarity to find an artist willing to take a gamble in a time when audience attention spans have never been shorter, but Ryan Adams always seems to come out unscathed and unbothered.

Prisoner is Ryan’s sixteenth studio album

When it comes to heartache Adams is a master craftsman, and he plies his trade as deftly as ever on Prisoner, his first record since a very difficult divorce which has seemingly become part of the marketing for the album, so it won’t be discussed much further here. The majority of the songs on Prisoner drip with Adams’ signature ‘regrets and cigarettes smoke’ melancholia, though sadly at times the lyrics lack some of the wittiness we know he’s capable of, falling victim to some weak and predictable rhyming. Despite his deftness with sadness, the record’s content starts to feel like a carousel after a while, with many of the songs attempting to hit the exact same heartstrings that the song prior to it did. What initially garners a sense of sympathy for a sensitive broken heart ends up feeling like listening to a friend ramble aimlessly about a relationship that ended months ago, seemingly unable to get out of their own way and move on. The final track “We Disappear” features a female laughing as the song echoes away, which feels an awful lot like someone listening back to old voicemails or watching home movies which may have meant to come off as sweet, but frankly it’s a touch creepy.

Before any of this starts to sound like the album is a doomy, sad sack mess, rest assured there are certainly memorable moments to be had here; this is Ryan Adams after all. The album kicks off with “Do You Still Love Me?” which offsets it’s gunfire area rock structure with jangly guitar tones and swirling organs, lyrically laying out the album’s main theme of a love lost. “Anything I Say To You Now” sees Adams brilliantly channel both the drive of a vintage Springsteen and the unique voicing of Johnny Marr’s guitar work on later Smiths material. The standout track for me however is “Doomsday”. Starting with that mournful harmonica that Adams always manages to work in better than anyone else who attempts to, it immediately grabs me the way it did when I first heard “Come Pick Me Up” off 2000’s Heartbreaker. And that right there might be the reason so much of his catalogue can be hot/cold with fans. Everyone has a different “jumping on” point, a song or album that defines Ryan Adams, as he makes his own efforts to defy himself.

The production on Prisoner accounts for some of the album’s median non-committal vibes as well. Prisoner features a fair bit of glossy studio magic that betrays what could have otherwise been really emotional content with some of the layers pulled back. Ryan Adams is at his very finest when he shows the ragged edges, and there are a handful of songs on here that would have hit the gut a lot harder if they were treated to a more minimal approach a la his Gold and Heartbreaker records (both of which are highly recommended listening for the uninitiated). It’s really not a case of the album being good or bad, the frustration stems almost wholly from it’s lack of commitment as to what it really wants to be, missing out frustratingly on being fantastic by attempting to please everyone at once.

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Author: Colin, Chiswick store