Album Review: Prisoner
Ryan Adams has always been a master of chronicling crumbling love lives
Review by Andrew Steel
From his days in Whiskeytown through solo debut Heartbreaker and all the way to 2015’s track-by-track cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989, the alt-country singer-songwriter has articulated the emotional turmoil of failed attraction throughout his career. But with Prisoner, his first original effort in three years, the tone is distinctly autobiographical; he has not been shy in press in stating that the record deals frankly with his divorce from actress and singer Mandy Moore. Leavened with intimate emotional baggage, it is a revealing, reflective collection of bruised gems that leans on the classic rock songbook as much as the broken heartstrings.
Adams plays across the subgenre spectrum often, rarely pigeon-holed by the same sonic soundscapes as he seeks to expunge his pain. The church organ intro of opener Do You Love Me? gives way to a sharp, AC/DC-indebted six-string crunch, a hard-edged funeral song for a faltering relationship where he pleads “I didn’t want it to change.” The harmonica-licked, roots-y rumble of highlight Doomsday is peppered with a Southern-flavoured wistfulness, whilst Anything I Say to You Now, with its lo-fi scuzz-jangle, channels his love of The Smiths, as does closer We Disappear, a Johnny Marr-esque guitar figure threading its way through the DNA of both.
His chameleonic approach pays off best when the heavier, shinier tracks rub up against their quieter counterparts. The barbed soft-rock combo of Haunted House and Shiver and Shake recall Bruce Springsteen in his imperial late eighties era, echoing, eerie synths washing up underneath trembling acoustic figures. Indeed, Prisoner is very much Adams’s Tunnel of Love, an anguished confrontation of love not cracking up to what was expected. To Be Without You, a plaintive acceptance of circumstances, is minimalistic and devastating Tightrope, featuring a not-wholly-unexpected sax solo and piano twists, is equally affecting. Prisoner rarely makes a misstep with its AOR-tinged anguish – and for Adams, it is a superb, moving validation of his reputation as a laureate of broken hearts.