ALEX REVIEWS MUSIC (ARM): RYAN ADAMS – “PRISONER” | 1st March, MMXVII

If you follow this blog with a certain regularity – and I assume it’s almost none of you reading right now – you might have noticed that 42-year old North Carolina-native Ryan Adams is somewhat of a big deal for who’s writing this. The singer-songwriter’s self-titled album, released in late 2014 to moderate success, has had an overwhelming impact on me that only few others have over my whole life and, surely in some ways because of that, I have come to thoroughly enjoy everything he has put out ever since (not mentioning revisiting his impressively huge and prolific past catalogue). Plus, carved in the history of this blog there is also a commentary slash review of Adams’s stunning live performance at London’s Hammersmith Apollo back two years ago, as well as a rather loose take on his largely talked about 1989 cover album revisiting in his own signature style one-by-one all the songs contained in Taylor Swift’s best-selling release from 2015. Furthermore, in an attempt at celebrating and highlighting Adams’s multi-artistic talent, another blogpost entry was dedicated to one of his free verse poems off of his debut collection titled Infinity Blues and published through Akashic Books in 2009. To sum it up in other words, as you can easily judge by yourself Ryan Adams is a pretty badass talented artist.

It is with this spirit in mind and with great enthusiasm that yours celebrated the release of Prisoner, Ryan Adams’s 16th (!) studio album of his career, which came out officially a little less than two weeks ago on Friday 17th February. Prisoner is Adams’s latest release under his own LA-based label PaxAmericana Recordings and it spans 12 tracks across 43 minutes. The record was previewed by a series of singles (“Do You Still Love Me?”, “To Be Without You” and “Doomsday”) and multiple promotional trips/talk show appearances which often saw the Grammy-nominated musician performing exclusive acoustic cuts off of the record. Furthermore, as part of the album cycle, the not-so-secret metalhead and cat lover started off his own radio show called The Midnight Wave on Apple’s Beats 1 and came up with glorious deluxe packages for every fan’s delight. Obviously, Prisoner’s release is also to be accompanied by a massive worldwide live tour that will keep him busy for the remainder of 2017. This is to say, is really does look like to Adams this record means something special, something that possibly wasn’t there in with previous ones or that perhaps he himself wasn’t able to experience and embody as much, as confirmed in a recent Facebook Live Q&A.

Enough for background and scene setting, let’s jump into the actual craftsmanship of this new album without any further ado. As briefly mentioned above, the first taste of Prisoner came through its lead single “Do You Still Love Me?”, made available late last year (7th December) and very much in line with Adams’ self-titled album from 2014, both sonically and thematically with respect to the overall record. The track is one of the “rockiest” ones with huge, arena-like guitars sitting on a bed of mellow and all-encompassing keyboards. Think of Tom Petty having a go at AC/DC in an ’86 London recording studio. Lyrically, the track finds Ryan questioning (his) love longing for answers but only to find more question marks along the way (“I been thinking about you, baby / Been on my mind / Why can’t I feel your love? / Heart must be blind”). Such a sappiness and inner melancholia is in fact a key reading lens for the overall record, further confirmed by the thin, acoustic second single “To Be Without You”. The track, most than any others on Prisoner, takes the listener back to the early, folky-alt-country songwriting era of Adams with trademark heartbreaking and touches of liberation and carelessness here and there. Definitely an interesting choice for a second single as, looking back, the track is pretty much left on its own in the tracklist, i.e. not being truly representative of the overall sound (yet this might as well have been a very thought-trough choice by weirdo Adams). Wrapping up with singles, the third one revealed through YouTube, “Doomsday”, is by contrast a unique musical pearl culminating from the songwriters’ latest sonic directions including, but not limited to: 80s Bruce Springsteen, The Smiths, Bruce Hornsby and Neil Young. This song at number three on the setlist combines wonderful lyrics (“My love, we can do better than this / My love, how can you complicate a kiss? / My love, you said you’d love me now ’til doomsday comes / ‘Til doomsday comes”) with musical finesse, mixing perfectly harmonica and guitars. In pole position to becoming a Ryan Adams classic for years to come.

Just preceding “Doomsday” on the record’s tracklist is title track “Prisoner”, which unfortunately, even after prolonged and insistent listenings, might funnily enough be one of the dullest and tasteless tracks on the whole effort. Albeit being a doubtless uplifter mood-wise, especially when considered within the context of this overall moody record, the track results a bit too incomplete and frankly too naked to be a final album version, but probably too confused and at the same time elaborated to be considered as a demo or B-side. However, the title track probably remains the only lower moment on Prisoner, which indeed sees a number of incredibly subtle and powerful cuts, such as the perfect modern-day acoustic number “Haunted House” at number four, or the minimalistic, heart-wrenching, and chilling “Shiver and Shake”, both carrying exclusive signature Adams’ sound and harmonies as developed and nurtured over the past five years. These two tracks, still very much in line with an irresistible – and at times cheesy – Springsteenian 80s echoy, chorusy, and reverberate sound, with the aforementioned “To Be Without You”, come to complete side A of the LP. And yet many would say that the best is yet to come.

Track number seven is “Anything I Say to You Now”, a fiery, 5-minute long classic rock cut with numerous walls of guitar sounds that dial in direct digits to The Smiths and some lateish Police vibes, just to name a few of the influences very explicitly worn on Adams’ sleeves. No doubt the rockiest moment on the whole album alongside the lead single “Do You Still Love Me?”. Immediately after that we find the superb guitar work of “Breakdown”, possibly among the most electrifying and proud tracks Adams has released in years, with the addition of an high catchiness alert. Following the energy of “Breakdown” it’s time for yours truly’s favourite bit on the whole record (and potentially of the whole Ryan Adams catalogue, although “Shadows” and “Dear Chicago” remain hard to beat), called “Outbound Train”, which if one were not to look carefully could easily be mistaken for a song off of Bruce Springsteen’s 1986 Tunnel of Love (“Two Faces” anyone?). The track perfectly encapsulates anger, emotion, love and much more in a very uncompromising climax of sounds and lyrics (“The cars don’t move in the middle of the night / Lost inside the void of the fading tail lights / I swear I wasn’t lonely when I met you, girl”). Tempo, structure, and rhythm all take each other by the hand and carry the listener in a phantasmagoric four and a half minute journey marking intimacy, honesty, and rawness on Adams’ behalf.

Moving on, the last trio of songs on Prisoner begins with the mellow and rather hopeless “Broken Anyway”, which finds regularly captivating and dreamy electric guitar strums accompanying a rather simple acoustic lead with pleasant vocal melody. Also, this very song, alongside the following one “Tightrope”, bear heavy influences and remnants of Adams’ Taylor Swift interpretation and recording sessions for 1989, as both tracks just simply possess that vibe and overall feel which are impossible to negate. Prisoner calls its curtains with the properly titled “We Disappear”, which showcases what might be the best guitar sound that’s been heard out there in the electrical pantheon in a very long while and turns very quickly, very weird, perfectly matching the personal mission that Adams himself has been advocating for long (read his Twitter bio).

It’s no secret by now, being two weeks into its release, that Prisoner has found enormous success and praise by both critics and charts, demonstrating once more how amazingly the singer-songwriter is still able to not only reinvent and re-craft his musical outputs but also becoming an artist on his own, disregarding for the most part trends, genres, and commercial reasonings. The overwhelmingly positive reception the record has gotten around the world does nothing else other than confirming that we, the people, needed a record like this in present times of disorder, dismay and loss of connections. That is, by figuratively stripping himself completely naked and putting his most inner emotions out there telling stories of his failed marriage and connected despair, Ryan Adams showed us all that there is nothing to fear in being open and transparent about oneself and, most importantly, that honesty and truth will eventually unite us all in appreciation. Because at heart, we really shouldn’t be capable of nothing else.

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV

RYAN ADAMS

“PRISONER”

2017, PaxAmericana Recording Company

http://paxamrecords.com

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RAIN ON AMERICA | 25th September, MMXVI

The past couple weeks have been extremely intense music-wise for me. On 16th September my all time favourite band Taking Back Sunday released their seventh studio album Tidal Wave, which has doubtlessly been on a loopy repeat ever since, whereas two days ago – on Friday 23rd September – Buffalo, NY, hardcore natives Every Time I Die dropped their highly anticipated and already acclaimed new LP Low Teens. Both made (and are still making…) for a very dense musical listening period which will likely fruit in some form of review on this frequencies sooner or later. I wouldn’t want to give away too much at this stage yet but I’ve got to say both of them offer, in very different ways, loads of interesting talking points and somehow represent new sonic frontiers for both outfits. More on this soon(-ish).

I just really wanted to touch base and highlight a little piece of art by alt-folk singer songwriter Ryan Adams that caught my attention during the past days. Interestingly enough, this time round I’m not talking about a song or album, but rather a free poem called Rain on America he released within his collection “Infinity Blues”, published back in 2009 and followed by a second instalment titled “HelloSunshine” during the same year. To be fair there could indeed be some room for musical excerpts, considering that the 41-year-old North Carolina minstrel recently announced the release of yet another LP in his already incredibly prolific career (18 studio albums and 11 EPs recorded in about 20 years!), provisionally called “Prisoner” and which Rolling Stone rightfully listed among its 35 must-hear albums of this fall. Yet I’d rather leave said musings to after it comes out, due in November, and let Ryan’s pungent and at times thorny verses do the talking for this one instead.

There’s not much to say really to introduce the following poem other than it truly resonates and emerges as relevant as ever to the current socio-political landscape, not only in the USA but other major Western countries too, even though it was most likely written about a decade ago. Enjoy it responsibly:

so dirty
so dirty and so mean
is a rainbow
is a letter-stained
is a blowhole sewer
that’s right
just a touch of little america
in a small town
wishing you were gay
or allergic
to something
anything
symmetrical lines ripe with train machines
like arms
branches of trees stuck to this rock
out-stretching
blowing up fast
through
shadow mole-holes
and
rain
rain rain rain


so dirty
so dirty and mean
hands like a battling machine
like a failed robotic attempt
like an interruption at the movies
like texting your former lover
or future
because he will not stop your nevers
not here
with a little touch of america
at your service door
flags in the yard
dogs in the house
his name above
loose and no growl
little ones go teary and cross
while the plate gets heavy with
cigarettes and lip gloss
and gin-scum breath
and cigarette-tray stains
and a hand gets bit by an animal
but nobody screams
or says anything
the mall dies
so eventually
store by store
the zombies outside they aren’t scary anymore
before the movies went cold before before
and the film backed up on the shilling and trade post
and chicken meat got hormonal and plain


so dirty
so dirty and so mean
little and loud
angry
and effortlessly proud
of nothing
and plain
just a little touch of america
rain
rain rain rain.

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV

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TA(Y)LORING RYAN ADAMS IN HIS SWIFT’S 1989 RENDITION | 10th October, MMXV

At first glance this one may very well seem like yet another ARM blogpost for you to digest before returning to the usual Interweb-based practices of watching cats doing silly faces and ripping off vegan recipes strictly gluten-free. But no, even though it most definitely deals with music, I’m not framing this text as another instalment of my award-winning music review feature, simply because for the point I’d like to make I feel it’d be better not to constraint the boundaries of my argument to pre-defined redactional criteria.

Alright, first things first. On 21st September alt-country singer-songwriter Ryan Adams released his own track-by-track rendition of multi-platinum best-selling Taylor Swift album “1989”, which came out a little less than a year before. While I’ve already got to point out that at the time of the release I wasn’t really familiar with Swift’s effort – except for those inevitable, chart-topping tunes such as “Shake it Off” and “Blank Space” that were just all over – the fact in itself got me pretty excited and utterly curious. Partly because Ryan Adams, who I’ve had the chance to see twice recently, as reported here and also here, is one of my favourite artists of all time, but partly also because the artistic move of covering 1:1 a record that has established itself as one of the most successful of all time and has such a precise and unequivocal connotation associated with it is a pretty bold thing to do in the first place. Yet, Ryan Adams is also the dude who put Oasis’ most famous song into his darkest and most intimate album and released it as a single. Or even the guy with the most similar name to Bryan Adams who then covered the Canadian’s hit singles “Summer of 69” and “Run to You” at some of his live shows. You get the idea.

What I wanna say is that with his cover of “1989” Ryan Adams has been able to access his most-inner artistic capacity and to convert such source into a perfectly sounding Ryan Adams record, as if the songs came out straight from his own urge to express himself the way he best does. In a way, it almost felt necessary for Ryan to draw upon someone else’s initial creative output in order to mirror himself from a new, fresh, and possibly less biased perspective. There’s no track on Ryan’s “1989” that doesn’t sound like something that Ryan himself could’ve written from every tune’s conception. In fact, following on this, there are in my opinion songs on “1989” that have been masterly reinvented and transformed for the best by Ryan, such as “All You Had to Do Was Stay”, “Shake it Off”, and “Wildest Dreams”, which all reached new levels of perfect after the alt-country songwriter’s intervention and can’t really compare to the superficiality of Taylor Swift’s initial versions. To be fair, there also are tunes that still seem to sound and perform better with Taylor’s backing instead of Ryan’s, as with the most obvious case of the empty “Blank Space” (no pun intended… really), despite Taylor herself declaring it her favourite reinterpretation of the whole album during Ryan’s first exclusive interview post-1989 with Beat 1’s superstar host Zane Lowe.

There is however a bucket of songs for which it’s truly hard to tell which version makes them really stand out, either Taylor’s or Ryan’s. Possibly precisely because both versions, the original mainstream-poppy one and its more inward-looking re-imagination, truly make sense and deliver that little (or rather big) something that everyone looks for in music, that is connection, feelings, and reliance. I’m referring here to songs like “Style” (arguably Adams’ best tune on the record) and “Bad Blood”, that not only showcase Ryan’s ability to spin extremely radio-friendly songs and make them his own property, but which to be honest also sounds pretty good with Taylor’s voice on top of them. In this regard, the repetitive listens I have given to Ryan’s rendition of “1989” have actually allowed me to move closer to Taylor’s original release as well, enabling me to appreciate and leverage her work in a surprisingly manner. At this point I’d also like to give a well-deserved shout out to America’s sweetheart herself, because I truly believe she’s one of the greatest out there. Not only because of her activism and engagement in trying to make the music industry a better and fairer place, but also because truth be told she always demonstrates a relatively low-profile in everything she does, especially if compared to other pop superstars of her fame. Also, on top of all this, she writes good tunes.

Going back to my main point of this blogpost, I feel like for his fifteenth (!) studio album Ryan Adams really had to initially look somewhere else in order to get a sighting reflection of what he really needed to say at this point in his life. His 1989 is truly his own, despite what everyone may think. His trademark and distinguished touch on every single song is just too intense and amalgamated for them to be just surrogated compositions with some more reverb and soaring registers added to them. Such a transposition and conversion work deserved thus particular distinction, intended to both Taylor’s original songwriting and Ryan’s adoptive ability. It may then take another 15 album before Ryan decides it’s time to embrace another gravitational perspective at his own musical craftsmanship again and tailor it accordingly (in fact, he’s already got two new albums recorded and ready to be released…), so in the meantime let’s just enjoy the sonic beauty of his (genuinely owned) “1989”.

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV

RYAN ADAMS

“1989”

2015, PAXAMERICANA RECORDING COMPANY LLC

www.paxamrecords.com

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