In 2000, Ryan Adams left the alt-country band Whiskeytown and released his first solo album “Heartbreaker.” The reflexive, melancholic masterpiece signified not only the start of Adams’ push into the mainstream spotlight but also the beginning of an avalanche worth of material. During the ensuing years Adams created music at a near frantic speed, often two to three releases per year.
No one can deny that Adams is a prolific writer and his discography over the past decade serves as ample evidence. By the latest count he has released 17 albums and eight EPs since 2000. Within this trove of content there are equal instances of innovative triumphs and pretentious failures. But Adams’ latest album “Prisoner” falls into the triumph category of his conflicted discography.
Adams had an image crisis following his 2015 cover album of Taylor Swift’s “1989.” What was supposed to be taken as a simple perspective change project instead received a substantial amount of public and critical attention. Some critics used the album to misogynistically attack Swift’s original work while promoting Adams as a pop savior.
For example, Ian Crouch of the New Yorker mansplained that “Blank Space” in the hands of Swift embodies the thrills of being a “wild woman” whereas Adams’ cover was more “subversive” and “sincere.” Other critics used the album as a medium to discuss the declining nature of Adams’ songwriting.
Following the media frenzy, Adams desperately needed a new album that would secure his listener base, and remind critics what made him a great songwriter in the first place.
Luckily, the new album delivers on those needs, but it’s certainly not a joyous celebration. “Prisoner” is decisively a break-up album, both musically and thematically. Almost every song title alludes to being trapped in a fractured state of mind. But fret not, this inherent sorrow benefits Adams’ songwriting significantly. Adams thrives in a melancholic state and his authenticity shines through his songs.
“Doomsday” is a perfect example of the extreme fluidity often found in Adams’ songwriting. Every instrument, from the wailing harmonica to the thundering acoustic guitar, feels completely natural and effortless. And over these exchanges his vocals draw out an emotional plea to a former lover with a catchiness that’s reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen's glory days.
Adams as a songwriter wears his influences on his sleeves. “Prisoner” feels like something right out of the ’80s, though this definitely isn’t a bad thing. In particular the electric organs and wailing guitar solos on “Do You Still Love Me?” have the aura of any classic song by The Smiths or Bob Dylan.
The rest of the songs on the album mostly utilize acoustic guitars backed by upbeat drums and a variety of accompanying instruments. From a musical standpoint, it’s Adams’ best work in 10 years.
“Prisoner” is a smart album because it was exactly what Adams needed to put out at this point in his career. A reminder that if he wants to, he can still make an excellent sounding soft-rock record; one that opens up his horizons for a whole new decade of potential experimentation and new music. In the end, Adams’ credibility is secured and we get an excellent sounding album. Whoever said breakups can’t be beneficial?
Drew Cowen is a junior media art and design and English double major. Contact Drew at firstname.lastname@example.org.