Ryan Adams ‘Prisoner’ – Review

23 Feb

Ryan Adams is one of the few musicians talented, prolific AND mysterious enough to propagate any kind of traditional rock mythology in 2017. He has a lot in common with Dylan, Springstein and Petty but for my money is the natural successor to Neil Young’s crown. Both artists started as frontmen of charged young bands whose potential far exceeded their output and whose influence greatly out matches their contemporary success. Both had promising early solo triumphs with folky, singer-songwriter fare before heading in to the ditch (as Young once memorably put it) by exploring weirder, darker and heavier themes and soundscapes. 20 years in to his career, Neil Young was seemingly on a hiding to nowhere, making divisive genre albums for his own pleasure. This is where the two depart. Adams has spent the past five years presenting a more refined, professional version of himself and his songwriting, reframing our perceptions of his art in the process.

Adams first pitched the material that wound up on ‘Prisoner’ to the public at the tail end of 2015, in an interview with Zane Lowe. He referred to the work as a ‘double album’ that ranked alongside ‘Love is Hell’ as the most devastating music of his career. That was quite an audacious claim, and somewhere along the way he clearly decided to curb that ambition. He gave the tunes some breathing space, asked famed pop producer Don Was to whittle them down, and then redressed them in slightly more colourful outfits. It has ended up being a streamlined and upbeat (watered down?) version of that initial proposition. The record is therefore a rare thing in Ryan Adams discography; an album about heartbreak that doesn’t actually sound all that heartbreaking. Rather than adopt the bruised and aching positioning of ‘Heartbreaker’ (universally regarded as one of the best sad-sack albums ever made), he matches his sadness pound for pound with confidence to create a largely upbeat record. It’s an interesting choice for material that so carefully dissects the end of his marriage. The melodies are bright, the guitars shimmer and the grooves are mixed prominently. It doesn’t sound quite as mopey as you might expect if you’ve only read the press build up for it, which has largely overstated its morbidity.

To full enjoy ‘Prisoner’ it’s best to have some understanding of how it fits in to Adams’ deep and varied discography. We can loosely group his albums in to types, noting that ultimately every one of his records sounds like Ryan Adams, just filtered through a different lens. There’s the alt-country material (‘Jacksonville City Nights’, ‘Strangers Alminac’), the roots rock material (‘Cold Roses’, ‘Cardinology’) the acoustic material (‘Heartbreaker’, ‘Ashes and Fire’) the punk and metal material (‘Rock n Roll’, ‘Orion’), the commercial material (‘Gold’, ‘Easy Tiger’) and 80s influenced arena rock material (‘Ryan Adams’, ‘1989’). ‘Prisoner’ picks up nicely where those latter two albums left off, to form, as critic Steve Hyden put it, a ‘divorce trilogy’. So after the successful self titled record and song for song Taylor Swift covers album, ‘Prisoner’ competes that trilogy of albums that convey clear continuity and consistency for the first time in his career. While a lot is gained from that consistency (it is going to chart in the top 5 in most of the key markets) it inevitably loses some of the things that made the Ryan Adams of the 00’s so thrilling. That unpredictability, that chaos, and that unadulterated sadness. Instead we get some of the most soundly constructed and proficient pop-rock songs you will hear all year. He has transformed in to a master craftsmen of the genre and by all accounts a funny and humble gentlemen – a complete 180 from the bratty-wonder kid who rubbed audiences and critics up the wrong way with his his drug fuelled antics and a seemingly never ending stream of music that was sporadically breathtaking/sporadically dreadful. Whether this is our loss or gain is ultimately up to you.

Ryan Adams is an artist in his third decade and it’s fitting then that the sound of this record mirrors the 80s soft rock that some of his key influences (Dylan, Springsteen, Clapton) were making during their third decade. In some ways ‘Prisoner’ feels like the destination Adams has been searching for since his early days. As far back as ‘Pneumonia’ he has been after that Johnny Marr guitar sound, and sought it most notably on ‘Love Is Hell’. Here though, for the first time really, the sound on record convincingly matches the sound he adores. The guitar tone is exactingly matched to the jingle jangle heard on ‘Meat Is Murder’ but writ large – perhaps demonstrating what The Smiths could have sounded like if they’d used some of that Warner Bros cash to make a blockbuster arena rock record. A less generous reading is that Ryan is slowly morphing in to his near name same, Bryan Adams. The abundance of reverb and a love for the gated drum sound certainly emphasises that point.

If musically ‘Prisoner’ feels like culmination of years of hard work and perseverance, then it does thematically as well. ‘Prisoner’ ups the stakes on past Ryan Adams albums; it’s not just a break up album, it’s a ‘divorce’ album. I guess 20 years in to your career you need some kind of gimmick or selling point, and Adam’s well publicised divorce to actress Mandy Moore has certainly grabbed the headlines and serves as a useful influence. Ryan Adams is to break up music what Brian Eno is to ambient; the question was never if he would address the split on ‘Prisoner’, it was a question of how. As I discussed earlier, he approaches the topic with clarity of thought and an ultimately positive outlook. If it’s true that he wrote the most devastating songs of his career after the split then they don’t appear to have found a home on ‘Prisoner’. Only the weepy ‘Shiver and Shake’ made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, with the tragic line ‘I close my eyes, I see you with some guy, laughing like you never even knew I was alive.’ Generally though the tone is even handed and fair.

Where once he might have given everything away (‘Heartbreaker reads like an intimate diary where locations, characters and specific details are named and dissected), these days Adams’ has learned to leave a little bit for himself. Not necessarily a bad thing, but the older he gets, the more he seems to rely on cliched imagery. The bespoke narratives and observations that once marked him as a rare lyricist of serious poetic intellect have largely disappeared in the rear view mirror. You get a sense of what I mean from the song titles: ‘Prisoner’, ‘Doomsday’, ‘Breakdown’, ‘Tightrope’ – it wins no prizes for originality. As a consequence some of the personal agony that marked his early classics like ‘Come Pick Me Up’, ‘Avenues’ and ‘La Sienega Just Smiled’ gets reduced. We can see so much of ourselves, and everyone else, in these lyrics that we loose sight of Ryan Adams. At times we could be listening to any Nashville hack with a guitar – if it weren’t for his sublime voice and first class melodies.

But this is my reaction many, many listens down the line. Listen instantly to the pulsating riff-age of ‘Do You Still Love Me’, the harmonica’s wail on ‘Doomsday’ or the moment his voice cracks on ‘Tightrope’ and comparisons to past work become invalid. This is top to bottom engrossing stuff. On ‘We Disappear’, the downbeat, atmospheric album closer, there is a line about the heart that could sum up Adams’ approach to songwriting. ‘Didn’t fit in my chest so I wore it on my sleeve.’ In many ways ‘Prisoner’ is more reserved than we’ve come to expect but it’s still a remarkably emotive and powerful collection of songs about a very real and all too common occurrence – the end of a marriage. Honestly, If classic love-lorn guitar pop is your thing then you’re unlikely to hear anything better this year than ‘Prisoner’. Where he goes from here is anyone’s guess.

8/10

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