Prisoner – Ryan Adams

ryan-adams-prisoner-cover-crop-1480x832The word Prisoner is capable of evoking two potential emotional responses. To some, it may connote a wild dangerous criminal, barely contained, capable of escaping at any moment and seething with murderous intent. To others, the piteous figure of a man, spirit broken, securely confined to a small, well defined, box. On listening to Ryan Adams’ new album it is instantly apparent that he meant its title in the second sense. Post release interviews given by Ryan confirm that:

“What’s more heartbreaking than any single event in life is the realization that every human being is trapped in a quest for love, trying to navigate a maze of desire. That’s what this record is about. Nobody falls in love to fail.”

To an extent that is a positive thing. This is a collection of painful piteous songs delving deep into the desperate self-assessment that comes with the end of a relationship. A marriage even.

And make no mistake, Adams is often at his best in this territory. ‘Amy’ from his solo debut remains a difficult but wonderfully rewarding listen (and a song that Adams himself refuses to play live such are the emotions attached). And his subsequent albums have equally been scattered with gems of this ilk from the desolate ’Sylvia Plath’ and ‘Afraid Not Scared’ to the exquisite ‘Burning Photographs’ and the tender ‘I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say’. Indeed Adams wrote, what is perhaps one of the most devastating ‘break-up’ song ever – ‘This One’s Gonna Bruise’ which was released by Beth Orton on her 2002 Daybreaker album.

Prisoner contains a number of sharply observed and quietly desperate tracks which, in a songwriting sense, sit right up there with some of those tracks – ‘To Be Without You’, ’Tightrope’ and the album’s central highlight ‘Shiver And Shake’’ featuring the lines:

‘My chest is all tight, my heart still aches/ These are the days you need double what it takes/ I miss you so much I shiver and I shake’.

The rest of the tracks too are uniformly strong (with the exception of Haunted House which comes off as a lesser Ryan-Adams by-numbers track). But somehow these tracks – as solid as they are – suffer by comparison. They largely cover the same emotional territory but to lesser effect. Not quite as sharply written. Not quite as evocative or visceral. Not quite managing the light touch of the above tracks.

These songs tend to feature bigger production as if trying to provide a counterpoint but somehow they don’t take sufficient flight and end up weighing the album down rather than providing the variety and lift needed to balance the album.  Only the Springsteen-esque ramble of ‘Outbound Train’ comes close to adding the required respite.

It’s as if Adams knew he had a great batch of songs and was determined to craft them into a perfect, cohesive album. It’s artfully constructed – a tasteful guitar solo here, a harmonica part there – all played by Ryan himself and precise drumming throughout by Johnny T Yerington.

It’s here that the album comes to resemble the titular prisoner as a ‘man in a box’ in a less positive sense. What the album needs is a bit more of that other prisoner, the dangerous one. The one tugging on his shackles. The album needs a bit of the tension created by the thought that Adams might break-out at any moment and burn the whole thing down.

This might all sound churlish coming from someone who once accused Adams of needing an editor – someone to give him more focus. With recent albums Adams has delivered the focus but here seems to have lost something in the process. I’d love to see how Prisoner might have turned out like with a producer like Ethan Johns (who produced 2005’s under-rated ’29’) or John Porter (who co-produced, with Adams, what to these ears was his masterpiece 2004’s ‘Love is Hell’). Or perhaps even a producer like Jack White who might have brought a little of that danger to proceedings.

On the whole, this is a fine album. Adams is too good a songwriter and player to produce anything less. But with the quality of the songs it could have been more. It could have been more than another very good addition to his discography. It could have been his second masterpiece.

Willow Springs – Michael McDermott

willow-springs

Willow Springs kicks off with the title track, a dense, ambitious and poetic composition featuring some 25 verses which cut to the quick. It’s a stunning attention-grabber with the decidedly Dylanesque structure and quick fire array of imagery: “Pimps and pushers, presidents/The paupers preach the tenements/ The cowboy’s code, the whore laments/The coming judgment day”.

It introduces perfectly each of the themes which remain at the heart of the album over its whole course: ‘dreams undone’, days spent wandering ‘through the wasteland’, ‘squandered salvation‘ and, ultimately, the redemptive power of love.

If nothing else on the album quite matches it for sheer audacity, that’s a relief. The album is stronger for its diversity which allows the full range of McDermott’s songwriting talent to shine through in songs about cars, war and love in its various guises.

The marvel of this release lies in the the depth and authenticity of the songwriting which, while not strictly autobiographical, reflects McDermott’s own backstory. Bursting on to the US music scene in 1991 with his debut album, McDermott was quickly compared to Springsteen and Dylan by a fawning music press and celebrity fans. He subsequently hit harder times – believing the hype, living the rock ‘n’ roll life, dabbling in drugs and alcohol, losing his record contract and even spending a stint in jail. Slowly but surely he ground his way back through a series of increasingly accomplished self-released albums, the support of his wife and bandmate Heather Horton and the birth of his baby daughter (to whom the track ‘Willie Rain’ is dedicated – and whose ‘I love you Daddy’ features in it). Willow Springs completes that journey and stands as his defining statement.

Despite the evident quality of the songwriting and the lyrical themes, dwelling on the aforementioned Dylan and Springsteen comparisons would do McDermott a disservice. He has a commanding voice of his own. Perhaps other contemporary artists such as Jason Isbell, John Murry, Simone Felice or Matthew Ryan provide a fairer and more relevant touchstone. Willow Springs cements McDermott’s place in that company.

Great music leaves scars

What defines a great artist?

Is it synchronicity – being in the right place at the right time, being in and of the moment, seizing the zeitgeist? Or is that altogether too fleeting to define greatness? Does greatness require longevity? Perhaps a great artist must build a great body of work – one which surpasses fashion or trend. Is consistency a necessary – or even desirable – ingredient?

Popularity is probably not a good measure. Many far from great artists have attained popularity, while many great artists never rise above cloistered critical respect among devotees.

Innovation is surely a factor – the ability to bring something new and fresh to the table and to influence others in a way which contributes  to the continued evolution of the popular music form.

There is no accounting for taste. Music is inherently subjective. The definition of greatness  is intrinsically ephemeral. All my favourite artists have a combination of some or all of the above attributes.

Ultimately, for me (and, from my observation, others who are as passionate about their music as I am) the only compelling ‘must have’ is soul. The ability to not just move the body but to emotionally connect with the listener at a deeper level. It is that soul – or truth – that anchors all great music,  surpassing fancy or whim and hitting you where it hurts.

Music that connects with you on that level leaves a scar. It becomes part of your reality – your being, your future and your past. It inspires you to dream, to reach higher. It helps you deal with sadness or loss. It elevates you, plugs you into something vibrant, beyond the paint by number dreams of everyday life. Listening to such a song years after you first heard it can provide a bridge to your past, associations of where you were, who you were with and what you were feeling when it first made that connection with you. The ability to create music which affects others on that level is great artistry. That, is soul.

This blog is dedicated to great music, the artists who make it and the enthusiasts who, like me, have been scarred by it.