Ryan Adams, "Prisoner" (PAX-AM/Blue Note Records)
From the days when he exploded out of North Carolina with the alt-country band Whiskeytown to his steady growth into one of America's great songwriters, Ryan Adams has always floated just below superstar status. If it's possible to be underrated through years of sustained excellence, he has pulled it off.
But the excellence continues on "Prisoner," a fine collection of fresh songs and new takes on heartache that demonstrates as much mastery as anything Adams has done. It matches surprising melodies with brilliant arrangements and affecting, urgent lyrics, reminding listeners that this is a craftsman who turns just about everything he touches into gold.
Adams' fans will recognize the vibe. There are the fingerpicked electric guitar trills set against a backdrop of jangly acoustic power-chord strumming. There's the same harmonica he's been carrying around at least since "Cold Roses," now more than a decade old.
His familiar blend of muscle and vulnerability sparkles on "Do You Still Love Me?" And when Adams, on "Shiver and Shake," sings, "I reach out for your hand but I know it isn't there," it feels like he's practically bleeding.
If there is a flaw here it lies in familiarity — Adams is hardly venturing beyond his comfort zone. But when you are this good that's not a significant problem.
Better to sit back and appreciate a songwriter at the peak of his evocative power, with plenty to sing about and the command to bring it home with authority.