When North Carolina’s Ryan Adams released his debut, ‘Heartbreak’ to critical acclaim in 2000 and swiftly followed it with gold-certified, ‘Gold’ a year later, a career as a stadium rocker could have seemed likely, even inevitable. However, bouts of serious illness, substance abuse and a determination to pursue his own creative whims against the wishes of his record companies have meant that whilst Adams near two-decade career has been staggeringly varied and prolific (more than twenty albums between various musical guises) he has perhaps never achieved the recognition he might have.
In the wake of a career that his garnered him steady accolades, but never household name status, it is perhaps a little too easy for casual audiences to write him off as the musician who does mildly interesting rock covers – his melancholic ‘Wonderwall’ of The OC fame, and his notorious track for track reimagining of Taylor Swifts ‘1989’ – or the moody rocker, quick to artistic feuds, who famously kicked a fan out of a gig for requesting a Bryan Adams song.
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It’s impossible to ignore the fact that this album comes hot off the dissolution of Adams’ six year marriage to country singer and actress Mandy Moore. That said, it would be churlish to pigeonhole Adams sixteenth effort as a simple break-up album – this is a milestone work from an unquestionably talented artist, who has been jolted toward a major crossroad in both his creative and personal lives.
Never one to stick to convention, Adams lulls his listener into a false sense of security with opening track, ‘Do You Still Love Me’, which, with its punchy bursts of electric guitar and simple, catchy refrain, teases the suggestion of a record of country power-pop. This is short-lived – the second, titular track sees Adams bemoan ‘the same grey walls’ and declare, ‘I am a prisoner for your love’.
Lead track, ‘To Be Without You’ sees Adams at his most nonchalantly fatalistic, repeating ‘Nothing really matters anymore’ over a beautiful acoustic tapestry, whilst on ‘Doomsday’ he strives for some semblance of hope with lines like, ‘My love, we can do better than this’. By the reflective ‘Haunted House’, and the hollow pulse of ‘Shimmer and Shake’, however, Adams seems to have resolved to have loved and lost.
‘Tightrope’ might be the albums best promise of a stellar middle act to Adams career – starting as a ‘Ghost of Tom Joad’-esque acoustic number it gradually opens up to unsuspected triumphance, full of clicks, soulful trumpet interludes and bitingly cryptic visuals, ‘Pretty candles on a birthday cake, Covered in confetti with the caffeine shakes’.
If Adams is ever held prisoner by anything, it’s his own overwhelming numbness, and occasional tendency towards ground too well trodden. The lyrics of the title track tend to the cliché, and when he claims to be headed for a ‘Breakdown’, even he seems unconvinced. Meanwhile, the Springsteen influence that drives the record becomes just that little bit too apparent with ‘Outbound Train’ – the listener urged to mutter, ‘C’mon, either cover Downbound Train or don’t.’
While certainly uneven, there’s no doubt Ryan Adams can spin jaded heartbreak into gold, or at least polished silver. There’s a catharsis to ‘Prisoner’ that makes its occasional elements of one-notedness understandable, and at its best, this is an album that bleeds wistfulness and resignation.