Ryan Adams - Prisoner

by James Weiskittel Rating:10 Release Date:2017-02-17

Ryan Adams has spent the past two decades prolifically (and maybe even defiantly) chasing his muse.  While his initial solo break was greeted with critical praise, Adams quickly shed the ‘alt-country’ tag as he continued to push the boundaries of his music, with each release feeling more and more like a contradiction of expectation.  So fresh off the heels of last year’s bold re-interpretation of Taylor Swift’s 1989 (a choice that Adams has now come to publicly lament), Ryan Adams is about to release Prisoner, a disarmingly potent collection of songs that may well be the singer’s best album since the release of his widely-acclaimed debut Heartbreaker back in 2000.

While 1989 was an interesting sonic experiment (and in retrospect, maybe a much-needed distraction for the singer), it fell flat for many fans who were perhaps entangled in their own expectations for another Heartbreaker-esque album following the announcement of Adam’s divorce that same year.  And so if 1989 was merely a diversion, then perhaps Prisoner is the overdue artistic response to his personal life’s upheaval that so many were waiting for.

The vague and overwrought cover that adorns the album says it all, as Prisoner feels like an updated take on the lovelorn ruminations that abounded on Heartbreaker some seventeen years earlier.  But this time the stakes were higher, and thus, Prisoner is not merely another break-up album.  Adams latest endeavor is an older, wiser take informed by the potent realization that love and loss sometimes go hand in hand.  Brutal honesty has always been at the core of Adam’s better releases, and Prisoner, in all of its self-effacing glory, is as honest as it gets.  

While the lyrical tone of Prisoner is mostly relegated to the emotional deep end, the album covers a ton of ground musically.  Adams has always excelled at tone-setting opening tracks, and Prisoner is no exception.  “Do You Still Love Me?” articulates its open-ended question with disarming clarity, marrying its Stone’s-esque swagger with an impassioned vocal.  There are shades spanning Adam’s entire career here, with hints of anthemic garage-rock (the harmonica-laden “Doomsday”), confessional balladry (the haunting “To Be Without You”) and electric-tinged folk (“Broken Anyway”) all pieced together to provide the album some balance within its scope.

No longer merely coasting upon the wave of his initial success, Adam’s growth as an artist is on full display here, sounding more and more in league with some of music’s most revered heavy-hitters (“Shiver and Shake” and “Outbound Train” are vintage Springsteen).  The album closes as strongly as it opens, with Adams confessing (on the deceivingly upbeat “We Disappear”) “But I’m not made of stone, and I’m so blown away, Don’t know what’s the rubble, and the parts I want to save”.  And as usually is the case when it comes to heartbreak, it feels like Adams already knows that the choice is not no longer up to him.

While it remains to be seen how it will ultimately be measured against the rest of Adam’s sizable body of work, I suspect that Prisoner was an exercise in artistic catharsis devoid of any commercial aspirations (which may be to its benefit in the long run).  That it just so happens to be one of Adam’s most cohesive albums (and among his best) may merely be an unintentional byproduct of an otherwise heart-wrenching exercise in sincerity.

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