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Unshackling love's chains

Ryan Adams' vocal delivery has a balance of grit and tenderness.
Ryan Adams' vocal delivery has a balance of grit and tenderness.PHOTO: UNIVERSAL MUSIC

Prisoner, Ryan Adams' 16th album, is a heartbreak record for the times

American troubadour Ryan Adams copes with a broken heart the only way he knows how - through songs. Prisoner, his 16th album, is his first collection of original material since the end of his high-profile marriage to singer-actress Mandy Moore in 2015.

Rather than wallow in self-pity, its dozen tracks see him nurse his wounds - it is an affecting and stirring collection of brutally honest tunes, as Adams pours his soul into a heartbreak record for the times.

Opening track Do You Still Love Me?, an anthemic power-ballad designed for the arena, sets the tone emphatically: "What can I say?" he questions. "I didn't want it to change/Is my heart blind and our love so strange?"

You feel for him as he tries to make sense of what went wrong. "I know our love is wrong/I am a criminal... I am a prisoner/For your love," he croons in the title track.



    Ryan Adams

    PAX AM/Blue Note

    4/5 stars

It sure does not sound like Adams was the one who initiated the end of the marriage. This much is clear on the heart-rending To Be Without You, where he sings, "Lying in the bed, you are so much to be without/Rattles in my head that empty drum filled with doubt."

Desolation and emptiness crop up again in Haunted House, where he laments that friends "all disappear one by one", while Doomsday is a rumination on broken promises ("My love, how to let my feelings go/You said you'd love me now 'til doomsday comes").

Musically, his heartbreak is scored to the sounds of the acoustic confessionals of alt-country as well as the polished, reverb-laden productions of 1980s rock.

The sparkly, shimmery guitars take their cue from Johnny Marr's output with indie-elders The Smiths. His vocal delivery is reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen's mid-1980s discography, a balance of grit and tenderness.

It is a warm and smooth sound that serves his tales of sadness well - the listener cannot help but be empathetic.

As with Death Cab for Cutie's release of the poignant Kintsugi in 2015, after frontman Ben Gibbard's marriage with actress-singer Zooey Deschanel broke down, Adams' heartache record is turning out to be one of his most significant releases to date.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2017, with the headline 'Unshackling love's chains'. Print Edition | Subscribe