Ryan Adams is the sort of emotive vocalist who breathes nuance into lyrics which would not have it on paper alone. And his 16th studio album, Prisoner, hardly differs from his previous work in that regard. The only problem is that — aside from the weirdly 80s prog rock opener that would be more at home on a Journey record — this album is indistinguishable from everything he’s ever done. If Ryan Adams were to do a Ryan Adams cover album, this is what it would sound like.
Always a troubadour of lonesome nights and the things that rise from coffee tables or empty beds, Adams has long proven his ability to capture desolate reverie with cinematic clarity. The tension between melody and depression fills his composition, his voice, his lyrics.
While Prisoner is no exception in some regards, it doesn’t seem to be making anything new with those tools. The lyrics are largely tired attempts at regurgitation. Aside from a few standout tracks, it seems the desperation with which he attacked music has ceased to be enough inspiration — and instead has caused his songwriting to toil in the realms of cliche. Parts of this album feels like he’s making a platitude out of himself.
Throughout Prisoner, Adams’ faded guitar aesthetic and echo chamber isolation blend subtly with less concrete influences — mostly shades of the 80s and 90s that bend toward Springsteen here and there. But it’s no significant departure from the base character of his catalog. And measuring it by the standards that Adams has set for himself makes this album fall a little short.
There are a few songs that stand tall against the relative lack of courage with this release. Closing track “We Disappear” has a tinny, flanger-driven sound that almost contradicts the despondent poetry of the lyrics. But it ends up forming a statement about the dissonance — and sometimes strange cohesion — between emptiness and hope.
It’s hard to say this album isn’t worth a listen. It is, especially if you’re an Adams devotee. It’s certainly not bad, but it’s not quite what some of its predecessors were. It seems as though Ryan may have finally become too good at what he does — so distilled in his art that he’s lost the burning core of it. Prisoner is no fluke, but it’s no masterpiece either.