Album art courtesy of Ryan Adams
Review by Caroline Moses
Ryan Adams has had a long and prolific career as a musician, starting in the 1990s. While there's no reason to believe that he'll slow down anytime soon, Prisoner, his latest album, has the overall feeling of a retrospective, of a chance taken to look back over the past, musically and personally.
The thematic content of the record largely centers around the dissolution of his marriage to actress Mandy Moore, something Mr. Adams acknowledged in an interview with NME: "I think that's what fans will read into it...and they wouldn't be wrong.” This obviously provides thematic coherence to the album, which very much hangs together as an album as opposed to a collection of songs. The end of a relationship, especially such a serious one, always involves a certain amount of looking back, and that comes through as a major lyrical theme. In "Doomsday," Mr. Adams confesses, "I don't know/how to let my feelings go," and seems to still be trying to keep things together, saying, "we can do better than this." But the rest of the album, and even the title of the song itself, seems to suggest that he knows this is to no avail. The tone of this acknowledgment leans far more towards melancholy than anger, and in several places he seems to suggest that the end of the relationship was his fault; in "Prisoner," the title track, he begins with, "Free my heart/somebody locked it up," and "Outbound Train" speaks to his inability to recognize that something was wrong ("How am I supposed to know/when it's time to go"), a theme continued in the song "Broken Anyway."
But if Prisoner is about divorce, it is equally about middle age, confronting past mistakes and general existential despair that he may have had less time for when he was living fast (although 2002's Demolition proves he's always carried it with him). "Haunted House" seems at first listen to be about the house he lived in with his wife, but additionally serves as a metaphor for his life, somewhere that he lives alone, with his friends disappearing and cracks in the windows. "To Be Without You" also reflects on getting older, mentioning his greying hair and saying that he feels tired and humbled, and "Tightrope" also draws attention to the passage of time, describing both a New Year's celebration and a birthday party from years gone by. Perhaps the most striking portrait of identity crisis on the record comes on its final track, "We Disappear." Adams focuses throughout the song on his isolation, but the isolation feels more existential and introspective than just separation from his ex-wife. He paints his loneliness as total, saying, "nobody hangs around that's got something to lose," but also as something that, like age or the end of his relationship, has crept up on him without his noticing ("Was I alone, am I still?/Nobody gets in, nobody ever will"). He expresses desire to start his life anew, but is unsure where to begin: "Don't know what's the rubble/And the parts I ought to save." In "Outbound Train," however, Adams feels more at peace with the situation. Yes, he's getting older, and yes, his life is in a rough place, but the good memories still feel good, a feeling supported by the upbeat tempo and major key of the song. Looking back at the past while still acknowledging that it's time to move on is a real show of maturity from a guy who was once considered the enfant-terrible-turned-drunk-uncle of indie rock.
Musically, too, the record feels like a deep dive into Adams' past work. "Prisoner,” "Doomsday," and "Tightrope" all sound like his earlier work from Heartbreaker and Gold, from the harmonica in "Doomsday" which automatically recalls his first big solo hit "Come Pick Me Up", to the bright, strum-heavy guitar sound in "Prisoner" which sounds like it belongs on the same album as "New York, New York." Meanwhile, "Haunted House," "To Be Without You," and "Outbound Train" sound more like the Ryan Adams and the Cardinals era of his discography, with fuller arrangements and richer vocal tones - a sharp contrast to the plaintive, strained sound heard in "Tightrope". "Shiver and Shake" even seems to borrow from the soft monotones Adams used in his covers of Taylor Swift's 1989. "Do You Still Love Me?", the first track on the album, sounds more current, although not a huge departure from Adams' usual style, which is probably why it was chosen as the first single ahead of the album release. It also features an organ sound, perhaps recalling the wedding that served as the other bookend of his marriage, and a guitar solo that wouldn't feel out of place in a Jack White song.
Overall, the record perfectly captures what it is about Ryan Adams that people come back to two decades into his career: the rich interiority of his lyrics, the balance of serenity and bombast, and the heartbreak, as raw and real as it has always been. By poaching musical ideas from his previous records and mining the fertile ground of introspection and retrospection for his lyrics, Ryan Adams manages to grow up without growing old on this album. While it doesn't really break any new ground, fans of Adams' prior work will not be disappointed.