Let’s be honest — who actually thought Ryan Adams would live to see his forties? For much of the Aughts, Adams teetered constantly on the brink of total, brilliant implosion. The abandon and recklessness with which he fired off musical projects, alternately profound and confounding, was matched only by the pace of his substance consumption. He tackled genres as quickly as he could, veering wildly from alt-country and modern Americana (the masterful Heartbreaker, Cold Roses) to scrappy post-Strokes garage punk (the abhorrent Rock N Roll) to beautifully miserable Smiths paeans (the indulgent Love is Hell). He seemed truly incapable of being happy, but out of that twentysomething restlessness came a sense of constant forward movement, the necessity to keep swimming, experimenting, and producing, lest he actually find too many moments alone with his thoughts. It was a wild, perplexing, and unfailingly entertaining ride.
Which is why it’s such a colossal bummer to see him yet again stay in the same place for his latest release Prisoner. Since the beginning of this decade, Adams has battled with Meniere’s Disease and tinnitus, which may have humbled him and calmed him down a bit. Plus, until the beginning of 2015, he was in a loving marriage with This is Us star Mandy Moore. What followed were two albums, Ashes & Fire and Ryan Adams, that saw the artist settling into a consistent groove. Those releases were marked by tender acoustic balladry, occasional bursts of Tom Petty-aping Capital-R Rock guitar, and very little sonic experimentation. If you love Adams’ gift for wallowing, depressed lyrics and mournful guitars (which, in full disclosure, I do), then those records were safe and perfectly fine. But they didn’t challenge, didn’t tease, didn’t incite the rage and the joyous pain of being young that characterized his earlier work. Part of what made his 2015 full-length 1989 cover album such a pleasant surprise was that it was the first time in at least a half-decade that Adams had done something with a smirk, something unexpected (a Taylor Swift cover album — why the hell not?). Alas, Prisoner reverts back to the mode he’s found himself in as of late — it’s steady, it’s solid, and ultimately I won’t feel much of a need to return to it.
Prisoner opens in an almost identical manner to Ryan Adams — a bed of sustained organ notes, a big, fat power chord, and Adams embracing the yelping end of his high register. Opener “Do You Still Love Me?” is a perfectly component mid-tempo rock number and it will probably kick ass in a live setting. But it’s also a dead ringer for Adams opener “Gimme Something Good”, and it ultimately proves prophetic of the way this album echoes the sound and structure of that prior release. There’s the mid-album, plaintive and gentle folk number (“To Be Without You”) that occupies a similar spot as 2014’s “My Wrecking Ball”. Prisoner’s prevailing sound is largely identical to that of Ryan Adams — echoing electric guitar that forms a hybrid of ‘80s Springsteen and Marr, despairing organ and keyboard lines, the occasional Clarence Clemons-recalling saxophone solo (“Tightrope”), and Adams’ voice settling into an almost unwavering, muttering croon. It doesn’t particularly help that the B-side of the album is almost uniformly acoustic-guitar driven ballads. Adams used to schizophrenically change moods and genres from one track to another, and however frustrating it may have been, at least it never settled into background music.
As this is Adams’ first work of original music since his divorce (I still consider 1989 his real post-divorce record), the lyrics bespeak a particular kind of midlife emotional turmoil. His lonely dwelling is now a “Haunted House”. Two different songs entitle themselves along the motif of breakage. “Every night is lonesome and is longer than before / nothing really matters anymore,” he sings on “To Be Without You”. His wordplay remains as precise and deeply affecting as ever, but it was more fun a decade ago when he was “twentysomething” depressed, and not “crumbling marriage” depressed.
That being said, when he wants to, Adams is still capable of writing songs that musically and lyrically gut you. Adams’ recent output gets compared a fair amount to Tunnel of Love, and that’s a fair comparison, but the album’s standout cut “Shiver and Shake” is more like his “I’m On Fire”. A gently strummed, yet insistent electric guitar, a ghostly sheen of keyboards, and Adams’ vocal delivery aching with longing and regret as he sings about lost love as a matter of both physical and emotional agony. Similarly excellent is the ominous, jangly “Doomsday”, which opens in the manner of a number of Adams’ best songs — with a burst of impassioned harmonica. The title track, despite its somewhat obvious metaphor, is very pretty, delicately balancing acoustic and meandering electric guitars over multi-tracked vocals. Ultimately, with Prisoner, as with other recent releases, the highs aren’t quite as high as they used to be, but the lows certainly aren’t as low. Even if he’s not on solid emotional footing (when has he ever been?), Prisoner finds Adams making new music in a steady, workmanlike manner befitting his status as one of the younger guardians of traditional “rock” music. It’s perfectly fine, but I’m still far more likely to replay Heartbreaker or Love is Hell than I am to revisit Prisoner. C PLUS