Ryan Adams: Prisoner album review – a sounding board for heartache

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Artist: Ryan Adams
Genre: Rock
Label: Pax Am/Blue Note

You can never quite guess where Ryan Adams will go next. Throughout his career, the North Carolina native has been the poster boy for alt-country, recorded a metal album, transformed an Oasis song into a melancholy folk ballad, enjoyed success as the frontman of a rock band and, most recently, made headlines with a (very good) cover of Taylor Swift's 1989 album in its entirety. Is he continuously searching for his true sound, revelling in eclecticism or just messing with us?

In any case, it seems like the prolific songwriter is using his 16th studio album as a sounding-board for heartache, following his divorce from actress Mandy Moore several years ago. With a rumoured 80 songs demoed for the record, Prisoner is perhaps an album best avoided by the emotionally fragile, with songs steeped in self-doubt (Do You Still Love Me?), despair (Shiver and Shake) and frustration (Broken Anyway). Breakdown sees him doubt his own sanity, while Haunted House nails the post-relationship period of seeing spectres of the past at every turn.

Luckily, his musical chopping-board is a little more wide-ranging in flavour. The title track, Doomsday and Outbound Train fall back on his tried-and-trusted Bruce Springsteen/Tom Petty homage, intermittently laden with rich, laidback strums, rocky beats, harmonica and moderately indulgent solos that are hugely enjoyable despite their blatantly obvious origins. The saxophone on Tightrope is especially E Street Band-esque, while Anything I Say to You and To Be Without You touch upon his early country-laced material.

Mostly, it’s Adams’s eminently listenable voice and his succinct way with words that make this album work – particularly in its quieter moments. For all his chameleonic poses over the years, he is at his best when capturing the essence of what it means to be human – heartache and all.

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy is a freelance journalist and broadcaster. She writes about music and the arts for The Irish Times