Ryan Adams – Prisoner Review

ryan adams prisoner

Adams delivers another bland, mediocre record that critics will likely eat up.
PAX AM, 2017
Purchase: Ryan Adams' Storefront / Amazon

4.0 / 10

How has Ryan Adams gotten this far? Much like The Hold Steady, Japandroids, or even Arcade Fire, Ryan Adams’ music is simple, direct, and speaks to simpler, nostalgic times. But hey, the lack of originality is OK because these artists seem to “get” that they are throwbacks. They seem to “get” that they are riffing on Springsteen, or Mellencamp, or Neil Young. And because they “get” it, critics give them a pass, or even hold them up as champions of today’s music. When Coldplay writes a boring stadium rock album, critics pan it and use it as an example of the vapidity of today’s popular music. When Ryan Adams does it, it’s “honest”, “direct”, and “alive”. Give me a break.

All right, so I’m biased against Ryan Adams. I don’t like his music. And I don’t like his covers. I think that his version of “Wonderwall” (which earned him a Grammy nomination!) is boring and tired. I think that his version of Taylor Swift’s 1989 is tedious and uninspired. In both cases, he generally just slows things down, gives it an Americana / rootsy flavor, and ditches the fantastic melodies that made those other songs work so well. 1989 was a fun, entertaining album — but Ryan Adams’ spin allowed it to be something that indie-rock nerds such as myself could say, “Now this is something I can listen to.”

But this all leads us to Prisoner, Adams’ new album. The first time I heard it, I tried to check my preconceived notions at the door. I was almost fooled, too, because leading track “Do You Still Love Me?” may be one of Adams’ best songs. It’s loud and anthemic, but it feels genuine. It sounds like Adams is actually trying. As if, for once, he’s wiped his hair out of his face, dropped the retro-vintage-shtick to deliver a hit. “Do You Still Love Me?” is a good song. Maybe even a great one. But it’s alone on an album of tired, mid-tempo, mid-volume exercises.

Just take a look at any of the lyrics. They’re all platitudes. While Prisoner is meant to be a heart-broken break-up album, it rarely comes across that way because the lyrics feel so worn and used that they’ve lost all meaning. For example, on the title track, Adams moans “I know our love is wrong. I am a criminal. I am a prisoner. I am a prisoner… for your love.”. Or in “Haunted House”, where he compares an old relation to a dilapidated haunted house. Or at his most Springsteen-esque on “Tightrope”: “All I want is for you to make me smile. All I want is for you to drive me wild.” And that’s the oft-repeated chorus, too. These words, they feel like nothing. They certainly don’t feel personal because we’ve seen similar metaphors and similes put to better use.

And maybe that’s why I don’t like — have never liked — Ryan Adams. His music pitches itself directly at the middle. It takes no chances, lyrically or musically. It’s so agreeable that, while it’s delivered as The Work Of A Serious Songwriter, it could easily show up in any broadcast television show montage. There are no critical missteps or outrageous flaws on Prisoner, but there never could have been a chance for that anyway.

Key Tracks:
“Do You Still Love Me?”
“Breakdown”

There are 2 comments

  1. Madcap

    There is little point reviewing an artist you dislike so much as it does not benefit anyone. Perhaps you should consider why so many other music critics have given it the thumps up. Not that you are interested, but Prisoner is a fine album and to give it 4/10 makes you look a little silly.

    1. Tom Alexander

      Thanks for the feedback. I see where you’re coming from, but I respectfully disagree. For any band or artist, there’s going to be reviews written by fans, non-fans, and haters. That’s probably how it should be, given that you can count on people with wildly different backgrounds are going to stumble onto any given album review (and this goes for anywhere — not just this website). Even though I have not always been a fan of Adams’ music, I think that any neutral audience who comes across this review will have enough information to make their own decision. After all, I do compare him to Springsteen, Japandroids, Arcade Fire, and the Hold Steady — groups that are often held in high esteem.

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