Since leaving Whiskeytown to go solo, Ryan Adams has been hard to pin down. At first it seemed he would go the expected acoustic singer-songwriter route, but then he made some loud rock records. From there, he went back to leaning alt-country, but then released a punk record, formed another band, and put out a metal record, before going solo again. Then there was the time he released three full-length records in one year. It seems he has the mercurial wandering of a musically restless spirit. Further proof came when he covered Taylor Swift’s 1989 album. Though it seemed like a joke at first, Adams’ version transcended what could have been a one-note premise and gave Swift’s songs a nuanced re-imagining. It also reintroduced Adams to a larger audience whose attention may have been diverted elsewhere since his initial debut. Thus with a few more eyeballs on him, Adams has returned with his 16th full-length record, Prisoner (Pax AM/Blue Note Records).
Here, Adams plays it pretty straight. There are country touches, and he rocks out at times only to quiet things down on some acoustic numbers. Elsewhere, there are some songs that seem indebted to Bruce Springsteen. From the quiet break-up post-mortem of “Shiver and Shake” to the piano and sax interplay in the closing moments of “Tightrope,” it’s impossible not to hear the influence of the E Street troubadour.
Lyrically, it’s easy to surmise that Prisoner is a break-up record, as evidenced by the opener “Do You Still Love Me?” However, Adams seems less interested in the what and why of his failed romance, and more on how to live in the aftermath. He’s passed the anger stage and is working on acceptance. In less nimble hands, the album could be a real slog, but Adams and his crack band’s light touch lifts the material where needed, lays back when it’s time for breathing room, and metaphorically drops to one knee dramatically when it’s appropriate. Who knows where Adams may end up next, but at this moment Prisoner ranks pretty high.