You know where you stand with a Ryan Adams record. Apart from the curveball that was 2015’s Taylor Swift covers album, for the past 17 years, he’s been releasing a near constant stream of heartbroken, harmonica-infused country rock. Ryan Adams has found what works for him, and he has a legion of fans and seven Grammy award nominations to prove it. The system does have its pitfalls, though – with each new album so closely resembling the one before it in both style and form, it’s unlikely that Ryan’s fan base grows and changes much with a new release. Prisoner probably isn’t about to net Ryan Adams any new converts. But his 16th studio album has plenty to offer existing fans or those with a predilection for folk rock and heartbreak.
The record features twelve tracks of classic, Ryan Adams style country, from up-tempo ballads to slow, acoustic reveries. Lead single “Do You Still Love Me?” is catchy and bold, as are “Anything I Say to You Now” and the percussive, harmonica-led “Doomsday”. Lyrically, Prisoner is riddled with break-up songs and tales of lost love, perhaps unsurprising following his recent divorce from singer and actress Mandy Moore. The title track deals with Ryan’s preoccupation head on, with lyrics about being controlled by his heart backed by a downbeat melody and choppy guitar. Closing track “We Disappear” features a hoarse, weary vocal, fracturing around the mournful lyric “you deserve a future and you know I’ll never change.” The similarly bleak “Breakdown” is an album highlight, as is the reverent “Shiver and Shake”, with its eerie background harmonies.
While Ryan Adams’ strength clearly lies in country-tinged rock and roll, one issue with the record is that it doesn’t really present anything new. Much of Ryan’s output over the course of his career has focused on his romantic leanings, and Prisoner is no exception. Likewise, the musical elements tick all the boxes on the Ryan Adams’ checklist – the harmonica solos are present and accounted for, as is the tender acoustic guitar work and strong percussion, but there are very few mutations. This isn’t to say that the record is any less accomplished. Only that for people who aren’t already interested in Ryan’s work, Prisoner might not be a strong drawcard. Luckily for him, he doesn’t exactly need to canvass for affection. For his fans, there will surely be comfort in the familiar.
Release: 17th February 2017, Blue Note Records