There’s a beautiful, responsible honesty in these songs that cuts to the heart of mature loss.
I want Ryan Adams to be happy; I really, truly do. On 2014’s self-titled album, he seemed troubled and searching, but also as if he’d started to find his place in the world. He was sober, healthy, happily married, and, while conflicted, also learning how to let go and move on. The record was a career highlight and one that featured yearning Ryan Adams and content Ryan Adams in near perfect balance. It bode well for the next phase of his career.
But now that equilibrium has dissipated and Adams is sad again, with his new album chronicling his divorce from Mandy Moore. It channels 1980s Springsteen and arena-rock ballads (in a good way); its spacious, reverb-heavy production makes these songs of dissolution feel like being alone in a house that’s far too big for a solitary person.
Album opener “Do You Still Love Me?” slides into view with swirling, moody organ riffs before crashing into an oddly atmospheric pile of hair metal guitars. It’s a fine sonic metaphor for tension and irreconcilable difference that builds until it breaks like a crumbling dam.
Album standout “Doomsday” is half Johnny Marr and half Def Leppard, its doleful harmonica and jangly guitars perfectly complemented by booming 1980s rock drums. “My love, we can do better than this” is half plea for reconciliation and half sighing declaration of surrender. It’s the sound of the fleeting comfort of hanging on to the intact shards of what you know is already torn asunder. The Smiths are also a touchstone on “Anything I Say to You Now,” its thick atmosphere of melancholy and dancing, ringing guitars are reminiscent of the best mid-tempo numbers on Louder than Bombs.
“Shiver and Shake” will make you tremble as if you’ve been stuck standing in a cold rain for two hours. It feels like the reverse polarity version of Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” (and borrows a few of that track’s synth sounds), with barely contained smoldering desire replaced with the cavernous solitude of aftermath. “Outbound Train” references Born in the USA again, quivering while trying to pump its fists. It radiates the speechless emptiness and disorientation after acute drama has passed and you’re left with nobody but yourself, a person you might not even recognize anymore. Shuffling, oddly centered, self-damning album closer “We Disappear” explores this dynamic again, with wiry, phased guitars sounding like a flashlight probing a ribcage for a heart.
Was I alone, am I still?
Nobody gets in, nobody ever will
You deserve a future and you know I’ll never change
Broken mirror and my hand starts to bleed
Wish I could explain but it hurts to breathe
Didn’t fit in my chest so I wore it on my sleeve
There’s a dose of self-absorption and ego in any breakup record worth its salt, but too many become accusatory and needlessly self-righteous. Prisoner is undeniably swimming in pathos, but avoids that trap. What makes it not simply bearable, but truly affecting is its refusal to hurl blame. Even the album title is complex, alternately referring to being a prisoner in a failed relationship, a prisoner to a past that you’re having trouble letting go of, or a prisoner trapped in your own inability to evolve, open up, or compromise. On Prisoner, Ryan Adams wallows in sadness and mourns what’s lost, but blames himself. There’s a beautiful, responsible honesty in these songs that cuts to the heart of mature loss. A | Mike Rengel
RIYL: Sad songs on a non-digital jukebox; Bruce Springsteen circa Born in the USA and Tunnel of Love; downtempo Smiths songs; the sadsack-ness of Love Is Hell and Heartbreaker tempered with the clear-eyed reflection of Ashes & Fire.