I hold these truths to be self-evident. Ryan Adams is one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the past twenty years and change, dating back to his former band Whiskeytown’s 1995 debut album Faithless Street. Ryan Adams is also the most prolific singer-songwriter of the past few decades, releasing sixteen solo albums at seemingly breakneck speed over the past sixteen and a half years, dating back to his 2000 debut masterpiece Heartbreaker.
Rather astonishingly, despite his workhorse pace, the quantity of his output has never compromised the quality of his music. Moreover, and with reverence to his acclaimed 2001 album, the inspired, guitar-heavy production work he has bestowed upon his fellow artists—most recently Jenny Lewis (2014’s The Voyager) and La Sera (2016’s Music for Listening to Music to)—has invariably turned their music to gold.
The coupling of stark, unabashed lyrical introspection with simple yet affecting melodies has always been the chief mainstay of Adams’ compositions. Thankfully, the twelve songs that comprise his latest long player Prisoner, which follows his underappreciated 2015 Taylor Swift covers collection 1989, manifest his core strengths once again.
Conceived amidst the dissolution of his seven-year marriage to Mandy Moore, Prisoner is a sobering, soul-baring breakup album from beginning to end, with Adams’ pain and disorientation palpable throughout. The defiant, power-ballad guitar licks of opening track and first single “Do You Still Love Me?” belie the desperation and defeat in Adams’ voice, as he reflects, “Why can't I feel your love? / Heart must be blind / What can I say? / I didn't want it to change / But in my mind, it's all so strange.”
With an airy guitar melody loosely indebted to Adams’ favorites The Smiths, the title track finds him attempting to break free from the shackles of heartbreak, but the torment still lingers in lines like “Clock don't know what your memories do / They're stacking up beside the bed / I count 'em every night inside my head.” Similar sentiments are carried through the emotive, harmonica blessed “Doomsday” and atmospheric “Shiver and Shake,” a gorgeous, minimalist confessional in the spirit of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” and arguably the album’s finest moment. Other memorable moments surface in the form of the plaintive “To Be Without You,” the soaring “Broken Anyway,” and the shimmering “Anything I Say to You Now,” all of which burn with Adams’ heart-on-his-sleeve regret and resignation, the hallmarks of broken love’s aftermath.
Indeed, the fact that the breadth of the album is characterized by a ubiquitous, inescapable sense of heartache, regret, and weariness is understandable, and one can only hope that the process of writing, releasing, and performing these songs will afford Adams at least some respite and solace. Yet despite the top-notch production and unembellished sincerity of Adams’ words, the lovelorn misery grows a bit monotonous and cliché just past the album’s midway point, and feels like well-traversed territory by about eight songs in to the affair.
Relatively speaking, by most of his contemporaries’ standards, Prisoner is superb fare, with more than a few standout songs that reinforce Adams’ penchant for highly listenable songcraft. But within the broader context of Adams’ expansive recorded repertoire and beneath the cumulative weight of the (perhaps unreasonable) expectations that we as his fans place upon him due to his impressive track record, it just slightly eclipses middle tier at best. As Adams has proven time and time again, however, chances are good that he has more than a few future masterpieces germinating in his head as we speak.
Notable Tracks: “Anything I Say to You Now” | “Doomsday” | “Do You Still Love Me?” | “Shiver and Shake” | “To Be Without You”