Ryan Adams is hard to pin down. Cutting his teeth in the ‘90s with alt-country darlings Whiskeytown (which followed Adams’ punk band the Patty Duke Syndrome), he’s been confounding and delighting fans and critics for decades based on both his brilliant, multifaceted songwriting and his inability to sit still with any one style.
He’s also damn prolific, which is perfect for anyone who waits with baited breath for an Adams release. Since his 2000 solo debut, Heartbreaker, he’s dropped a grand total of 16 full-length solo studio albums, including his latest, Prisoner. These albums have run the gamut from country twang to power pop to hippie folk to heavy metal (seriously — 2010’s Orion is a bona fide love letter to head-banging) and many points in between. Considering the fact that his last album, 1989, was a covers album released in September 2015 (an eternity in Ryan Adams years), Prisoner is long-awaited material from him.
From a strictly musical standpoint, Prisoner doesn’t reinvent the wheel or announce a massive stylistic shift for Adams. While it may be somewhat fitting to call it a “default” Ryan Adams album, that undersells it. Average Ryan Adams is usually a lot better than what you’d expect from his contemporaries. The theme – if there is any – running through Prisoner is the end of a romantic relationship. In the time since the release of his self-titled 2014 album (his last full-length album of original material), Adams and his wife Mandy Moore called it quits, so the timeline checks out. If this is actually a “divorce album”, Prisoner is in good company as Blood on the Tracks, Here My Dear and Rumours are just a few of the great albums that have wrung winning songwriting and performances out of breakups.
Thematically, opening track “Do You Still Love Me” certainly fits the album lyrically, but from a musical standpoint it’s the album’s biggest outlier. Anyone familiar with Adams’ penchant for ‘80s covers like “I Want to Know What Love Is” and “Summer of ‘69” won’t be surprised by the heavy bombast of a genuine power ballad like this, but it’s so far removed from the rest of the album is seems odd to frontload Prisoner like this. Still, it works well for what it is. There’s striking Hammond organ, slashing power chords, anguished vocals, and even a wanky guitar solo. It’s almost like a long-forgotten single in a Night Ranger boxed set. But better.
After kicking open the doors with that first song (it’s also the album’s first single), things get back to relatively familiar territory. “Prisoner” has plenty of earnest, jangly R.E.M.-isms and, true to form, heartbreak and loss are part of the message. “I am a prisoner for your love,” Adams sings, as guitar riffs tumble all around him.
While the music often seems rooted in low-key folk, the underlying influences shift ever so slightly throughout the album. Brilliant songs like “Haunted House” and “Shiver and Shake” have a dark intimacy reminiscent of late-period Springsteen. The Boss’ influence can also be heard, albeit in a more upbeat manner, on “Outbound Train”, which marries a chugging, acoustic rhythm guitar with plenty of car/girl imagery (“the cars don’t move in the middle of the night / Lost inside the void of the fading tail lights / I swear I wasn’t lonely when I met you, girl”).
One of the album’s strongest tracks, “To Be Without You”, doesn’t necessarily break a lot of new ground as it’s standard breakup fare, even with a few gorgeous lines like “stinging from the storm inside my ribs where it thunders”. But the lonesome, mid-tempo heartland vibe is warm and welcoming, proving for those who don’t already know it that Adams is a master of working in a variety of musical styles without seeming forced. The song’s one drawback is its brevity (a lovely, twangy guitar solo is cut painfully short).
Befitting its release date — whether deliberate or not — Prisoner works well as a deep-winter heartbreak album, with acoustic guitars and ruminations on loss cutting through the cold air. It’s been said that the best art comes out of an artist’s pain. While that may be debatable, Adams has nevertheless managed to pull truly inspired music out of deep personal loss.