Ryan Adams (photo by Noah Abrams, PR)
Since releasing his first solo album, Heartbreaker, back in 2000, Ryan Adams has carved out a prolific and varied career that has seen him tackle a myriad of styles: country rock, garage rock, arena rock, hardcore punk and others. Sometimes, he’s explored numerous genres on the same album.
But while he has a thorough grasp and knowledge of rock’s many permutations, at the core Adams is still a singer and songwriter. Matters of the heart are tried and true subjects for singer-songwriters to delve into. There are endless ways that love, relationships, breakups, and heartache can be articulated and Adams has shown himself to be more than capable of pouring such deeply intense and personal feelings into his songs. It's an area he explores skillfully on his new album, Prisoner.
Prisoner is the follow-up to 1989, Adams’ interpretation of Taylor Swift’s album of the same name. Released in 2015, 1989 was a controversial album for Adams. Some critics looked down upon it as an artistic misstep, while others viewed it as an exceptional cathartic exercise. It was a project that Adams took on as his marriage to singer and actress Mandy Moore was ending. As the divorce became final, Adams tapped into his raw emotions on his next album of original material.
Prisoner is a collection of songs that center on heartbreak, its many manifestations, and reactions to it. Comparisons to Heartbreaker are inevitable too. The first words uttered on Prisoner, via the track "Do You Still Love Me," are: “I’ve been thinking about you baby/You been on my mind/Why can’t I feel your love." The song, a potent dose of 1980s guitar rock, sets the stage for what is about to come.
From there, Adams never ventures too far from the rock-meets-roots sound that has most often defined his catalog. The title track, written with Mike Viola of Candy Butchers fame, shimmers. Adams creates a metaphor, declaring that his heart is the prisoner in question.
In "Haunted House," he describes his emotional state as a lonely and unappealing place. You can feel his pain in the meditative “Shiver And Shake” through lines like “Close my eyes/I see you with some guy/Laughing like you never even knew I was alive” and “I miss you so much I shiver and I shake.”
Adams gets cross on “Anything I Say To You Now,” and his heartbreak is aggressively punctuated by jabs on his electric guitar. Desperation bleeds from “Breakdown” and frustration in the sax-inflected “Tightrope.”
In the past, Adams, a prolific songwriter, had sometimes diluted the impact of his work with too many releases a short span of time. But as he’s grown older, he’s less excessive and more selective, and the result here is a tight album that doesn’t meander. Although stylistically restless, Adams doesn’t choose to reinvent himself on Prisoner, relying on words and the emotions to do the work. We’ve heard this Ryan Adams before and it's just as rewarding: a sturdy songwriting shoulder to lean on.