Album review: Ryan Adams – Prisoner

By Paul Ewins

Ryan Adams is an artist who knows how to make amps shake and hearts quake. Starting out in 2000 following a duo of splits from then girlfriend Amy Lombardi, as well as his band Whiskeytown breaking up, Adams has gone on to release album after album with no signs of slowing down. His last album, a re-enactment of Taylor Swift’s 1989, showed he has no intention of doing what is expected of him. His sixteenth solo album in almost as many years, Adams’ Prisoner is an absolute masterpiece.

Focusing on his 2016 divorce with singer/songwriter Mandy Moore, Prisoner sees Adams at his most bare, which Adams himself described as “just a fucking horrible thing to go through”. The album goes between the Jacksonville born singer pouring out how he felt during the breakdown of his marriage and the emotions he has gone through since, while also singing songs of his adoration for his former bride. The album seems to document the entire divorce, with every few songs describing each stage Adams went through during the break-up.

Opener Do You Still Love Me? starts with an organ motif that continues throughout the song, while Adams and his band go between playing nothing and crashing into 80’s soft rock over the top. The following two songs, title track Prisoner and Doomsday, both continue in the same vain with Adams documenting how he clung desperately to his dying relationship and tried to persuade his love to stay.

Adams then goes into detail of the feelings he went through following Moore leaving him on the next few songs. Adams talks of his loneliness and abandonment and the fears he faces following the break-up, he sings of missing his lover and desperately hoping she’ll return – and also feeling rejected, fearing the worst that she has moved on and left him behind. While on To Be Without You Adams goes through the difficulty he has adjusting to life alone, still reminiscent of the relationship that has disintegrated around him.

Anything I Say To You Now is another song with echoes of early eighties American rock. While here Adams accepts his current life and being without his ex-wife, as well as Adams trying to work out his current emotional and mental state. Why is he feeling so lonely now when this was not how he felt before he met her? Does he even understand himself now? The repeating “I was so sure, I was so bored” on Outbound Train hammers home how uncertain he is of his current mental state.

The remainder of the album going between Adams looking back and thinking about what happened as the relationship died and love songs lamenting a dying relationship. It is here that the two standout songs on the album lie – Broken Anyway and Tightrope. On Broken Anyway Adams admits that the relationship was not working and that he could have done more to salvage things. Tightrope, in my opinion the best song on the album, may not have the best lyrics on the album (although still much better than most contemporary artists can manage) has several acoustic guitars playing against each other to symbolise the uncertain emotions at play, before a saxophone solo starts along with timpani all leading to a piano outro.

Despite reportedly having around eighty songs when writing the album, the album only contains twelve songs. But these are twelve excellent songs. Twelve songs that focus on love and heartbreak in a manner unparalleled by any songwriter other than Morrissey. In fact, the album – like most of Adams’ work – owes a lot to The Smiths. There are echoes of the haunted production found on The Smiths’ eponymous album and the songs sound so much like they could be on Morrissey’s Vauxhall And I. And there is no escaping the definite Springsteen vibe throughout the album. However, these are not criticisms. The album stands up itself and is simply sublime. It is difficult to find artists in the modern day who can write songs that both raze your heart to the ground while also repairing it beyond recognition, but Adams is one of these rare talents.