Ryan Adams is the very definition of a prolific musician. Since leaving the alternative country band Whiskeytown in 2000, he has released sixteen studios albums, beginning with the acclaimed classic “Heartbreaker” later that year. Since then his releases have bounced erratically back and forth between country, folk, rock, and even pop; in 2015 in did a full album cover of Taylor Swift’s “1989.”
The time around, Adams keeps it simple with a straight country rock album, “Prisoner.” The record deals with the themes of struggling and lost love. Appropriate considering the circumstances. He and Mandy Moore just divorced last year after seven years.
The opening track, and one of the lead singles, “Do You Still Love Me?” features which keyboard, dissonant vocal effects, and harmonized choruses channels the 1980’s power ballad. This type of grandiose style, that continues in tracks like “Breakdown” and “Anything I Say to You Now” also carries over a bit of the sap of 80’s power ballads as well. Much of Adams’ lyrics this go around lack subtlety and nuance, and blaring them over a standard rock riff just sounds vapid and trite.
The best cuts off “Prisoner” are easily when Adams is much more understated. Songs like “To Be Without You” and the title track, while still suffering from a bit of hackneyed lyrics, at least feature some catchy and pleasant melodies, leaning more on the soft country sound that Adams is known for rather than vanilla rock. These tracks are also the ones where Adams feels most sincere; he’s obviously going through some troubled times, but these feelings are better conveyed when the music is simpler and more refined acoustic instrumentations.
In all, “Prisoner” is a mixed bag. Adams has written better lyrics, and his music has been more polished, and less bombastic. Still, there are moments were his talent that everyone’s known about for years really shines through, despite these problems. These cuts were Adams seem to take a step back from arena rock and mediate over his guitar are what make this record. This is when the sadness that he is no doubt feeling is the most identifiable.