Year: 2017 – Producer: Ryan Adams – Label: PAX AM/Blue Note – Genre: Heartland Rock
A friend recommended this album to me but I foolishly didn’t write down the name of the artist or the album. I thought I’d finally remembered it as I searched ‘Bryan Adams’ into Google and got back results for a Canadian singer-songwriter who hasn’t released anything in 2 years. I eventually found the right guy.
Ryan Adams is a prolific country/folk rock artist that has been releasing albums since the turn of the century. His latest endeavour, ‘Prisoner’, is a distinctly country and Americana record with an interesting sprinkle of instruments uncommon to this genre – namely some prominent saxophone and synths. It’s interesting to hear the instruments in a genre where they are usually uncommon and, for the most part, it works really well. The transition between the sparse and synth-y ‘Shiver and Shake’ and the quintessentially country ‘To Be Without You’ is seamless and both songs are very enjoyable. I’m sure the choice to use these instruments had to do with reinvigorating a genre of music that’s in danger of becoming stale and formulaic in 2017. And I’m sure it also had to do with Adams diversifying his own sound from other active country/folk rock artists. But, despite this, I do feel like the record runs out of steam by the end and the music does end up sounding stale and formulaic. Tracks like ‘Broken Away’ or ‘We Disappear’ are quite forgettable as they don’t have enough personality to standout after you’ve listened to the whole thing.
Another thing I couldn’t help but notice was the striking musical similarity between Ryan Adams and Bruce Springsteen. Adam’s music and vocals have a similar aesthetic to Springsteen’s but also the overall feel of ‘Prisoner’ is quite nostalgic and a bit of a throwback to Springsteen’s era. To a lesser extent, I also noticed parallels with Father John Misty, particularly in regard to vocal intonation – the opening vocal melody of ‘To Be Without You’ hugely reminds me of how FJM opens ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt.’.
The main thing that weighed down on me whilst listening to ‘Prisoner’ was how original it was as a country/folk album. The singer/songwriter model in country/folk music has been going strong since the times of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash and it’s typically composed of an acoustic guitar, a singer, and perhaps a harmonica. The core elements of the genre are so modest in number that I get why so many active country/folk musicians have problems with originality in their sound. Another example of this problem is Kevin Morby, a very competent musician but his singing style is identical to Bob Dylan’s. But the reality is that if the music is good, then it’s good – regardless of how original it is. This is aptly relevant to the song ‘Breakdown’ on the record, which is a beautifully written track with a dominating sliding guitar riff. There’s nothing revolutionary about it, if anything, it’s actually formulaic and even cliché – but it works. ‘Prisoner’ is certainly an enjoyable heartland rock album but it doesn’t bring anything new to the table and could’ve done with cutting a few songs form the track list.
Top Tracks: Prisoner, Doomsday, Haunted House, Anything I Say To You Now, Breakdown