A weekly roundup of must-hear music from The Times' music staff. This week's picks include the latest from veteran singer/songwriter Ryan Adams, under-the-radar Americana artist Fred Eaglesmith and the outspoken country of Nikki Lane.
Ryan Adams, "Prisoner" (Pax Am/Blue Note)
One way to hear Adams' song-for-song interpretation of Taylor Swift's "1989" was as a coping device.
Released in 2015, the project provided Adams with an opportunity to work through his many feelings regarding the end of his marriage to actress and singer Mandy Moore; it suggested that Adams, the prolific roots-rock songwriter, found some reassurance — or at least some space to wallow — in Swift's skillfully drawn pop tunes about broken relationships.
If that's how he was using "1989," though, it didn't do the trick, because on his new album of original songs Adams appears to still be reeling from the divorce.
"Hear your voice, run your fingers through my hair / I reach out for your hand, but I know it isn't there," he sings, his voice quavering with emotion, in "Shiver and Shake." It's one of a dozen tracks on "Prisoner," due Friday, in which Adams describes the aftermath of a painful breakup — and does so with the kind of detail we're unaccustomed to getting from a public figure who might be concerned with how he looks.
In the album's opener, "Do You Still Love Me?," he's the guy struggling to comprehend a partner's decision — "I didn't want it to change," he admits — while "Doomsday" promises that he "could wait a thousand years" for her to come back. The title of "Haunted House" probably speaks for itself: Here he's knocking around a once-friendly place all by himself, tortured by a painting on the wall, "its eyes watching me as I walk on down the hall."
Adams goes on like this for the rest of "Prisoner," drawing from a well of sadness and confusion that seems only to have deepened by the time he gets to the album's closer. "Was I alone, am I still?" he sings in "We Disappear," "Nobody gets in, nobody ever will."
With its reverbed drums and chorus-effect guitars, "Prisoner" shows that making "1989" failed to exhaust something else for Adams, and that's his interest in the sonic signatures of the decade Swift was looking back on. You could see he was starting to get into the '80s on his self-titled disc from 2014, which had traces of Don Henley and Bryan Adams. But "1989" went deeper, as does this one in songs like "Broken Anyway" — it's very John Cougar Mellencamp — and the Tom Petty-ish title track.
"I can taste the freedom just outside that door," he sings in the latter, presenting himself as a man who can't shake a fixation he knows is bad for him.
But maybe he's getting closer. — Mikael Wood
Fred Eaglesmith, "Standard" (self-released)
To call the veteran Canadian singer-songwriter-bandleader one of Americana music's "best-kept secrets" feels a bit like damning him with faint praise. Yet somehow he still flies under the radar of even many roots-music enthusiasts, despite being one of the genre's most gifted lyricists and wildly entertaining performers.
On his 18th studio album, Eaglesmith dives deep into themes of separation, loss, romantic disillusionment — and mechanical contraptions, new and old. A dozen songs are given spare, wide-open arrangements that allow Eaglesmith's deliciously grizzled vocals and the richly rendered emotions of his lyrics resonate deeply en route to a reassuringly uplifting closing number, the exquisitely bittersweet "Mr. Rainbow." — Randy Lewis
Nikki Lane, "Highway Queen" (New West Records)
The year is young, but so far the leading contender for most cynical tune of 2017 is Lane's "700,000 Rednecks," a sick-of-it-all take-down of mainstream pop-art — or politics, as it's not quite clear. The support of nearly a million "rednecks" are what's needed, in Lane's view, to become a champion of the people. She delivers the message with road-tested weariness, a country-meets-blues punch in the face that opens her third album with a wake-up call. By song's end, one just hopes she isn't directing the message toward you.