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Ryan Adams perfects his melancholy, widescreen take on 80s heartland rock on ‘Prisoner’

(Laura Musselman Duffy/Flickr)

Recently, in response to a question regarding his unwillingness to be artistically pigeonholed, Ryan Adams said “yes, I’m a Scorpio.” Amused, the man who posed the question—ABC News Australia’s Mark Bannerman—pressed Adams on what exactly he meant by that. Unperturbed, Adams deadpanned, “it means I’m a bastard.”

What Bannerman was getting at was Adams’ uncanny propensity for bucking whatever momentum his remarkable talent inevitably creates for him. Whether through an unblinking, straight-faced cover of Oasis’ ubiquitous smash, “Wonderwall,” (long after it had become one of pop music’s most insufferable clichés) the release of three new albums in one year or the unleashing of an EP of genuine hardcore punk, Adams has made an art form out of bewildering left turns.

Perhaps that’s why the response to “Prisoner,” released Feb. 17, has been tepid in some circles. As a follow-up to his last collection of new material, 2014’s concise, brawny and radio-ready “Ryan Adams,” “Prisoner” plays it quite safe. Colored by his recent divorce, the dozen songs on the album are each given similar environs: straightforward structures, towering drums, guitars both muscly and jangly and clean but beefy production.

For anyone who heard “Ryan Adams,” or Adams’ critically reviled 2015 re-imagining of Taylor Swift’s “1989” as a morose heartland epic, none of the widescreen country landscapes on “Prisoner” should come as a surprise. What is slightly surprising, though, is how at home Adams—creatively fidgety for so many years—sounds as an unlikely revivalist of 80s AOR. Though Tom Petty and Reagan-era Springsteen have popped up as an influence in music ranging from The War on Drugs to Chromatics, nobody has channeled that era as efficiently and effectively as Adams has on “Prisoner,” a conservative but perfectly executed rock album.

What’s immediately striking is the sheer size of these songs. If “heartland” rock is meant to evoke the landscapes that give the sub-genre its name, “Prisoner” should be considered ground zero of the genre. You could drive trucks through the spaces left by even the impatient, thundering guitars of the album’s theatrical, urgent opener, “Do You Still Love Me?” Adams even allots plenty of room while asking the song’s urgent, titular question in the chorus, letting it wash slowly over the titanic instrumentation.

Between its central harmonica riff, its oceans of reverb and Adams’ dramatic cries of “My love!” in the chorus, “Doomsday” certainly paints a series of vivid pictures. Antiquated shots of perfect cornfields, endless, flat, single-lane highways and a story involving characters whom you can only tell apart by the differing sizes of their mullets come to mind. And yet—though it was seemingly made for use in a 80s, Midwestern, small-town recasting of “Degrassi” or “Dawson’s Creek” – its giant hooks are brilliantly executed, and simply undeniable.

Though there’s nothing on the meditative, measured “Prisoner” that can be considered impulsive, that doesn’t mean Adams is fully at ease. “Free my heart/somebody locked it up,” he begs on the title track. “I can taste the freedom just outside that door.” Reeling from the collapse of his marriage, his desperation to break out of the despairing headspace in which he made the record looms over these dreamy songs like a storm cloud, finding him declaring straightforwardly, “I don’t wanna live in this haunted house anymore” on “Haunted House.”

You get the sense that all of the album’s upbeat, heartland pomp and circumstance is sort of a defense mechanism, an environment Adams creates to disguise the all-too-human sadness, bitterness and loss he feels. In that context, the beautiful “Outbound Train” and the especially Springsteen-indebted wonderland of nostalgia and memories he creates on “Tightrope” make infinitely more sense, and become all the more powerful.

For all of Adams’ evident pain, “Prisoner” sounds remarkably effortless. There’s a comfort in sometimes knowing what Adams is going to do before he does it. He’ll rhyme “night” with “lights,” he’ll throw some catchy guitar leads over that harmonica, he’ll drop an especially high number of g’s to match his stronger drawl on a particular song.

People who are in distress often seek what’s comforting and familiar. It’s hard to find fault with Adams for returning to the sound he explored on “Ryan Adams” and “1989.” On “Prisoner” though, he finds solace in perfecting it.

Jackson Maxwell can be reached at jlmaxwell@umass.edu, and followed on Twitter at @JMaxwell82.

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