In reading some reviews of Ryan Adams’ new album, Prisoner, released earlier this year, I saw one writer describe the cover as a self-portrait. Could be. But, really, I see two people embracing, one face-forward, one back, with an emotional finality.
These songs were written in the aftermath of Adams’ marriage to actress and singer Mandy Moore. If Ryan Adams, released in 2014, postulated on the circumstances that inevitably lead to their divorce, then Prisoner sees Adams in the empty, discolored days of solitude after the case was closed. Here he takes on the stages of grief song by song.
Prisoner opens up with the just-add-water classic first single, “Do You Still Love Me?” a song only Ryan Adams could muster with such perfection. An organ leaks into the track like sunlight across a windshield and leads to a three-hammer jab of disgruntled guitar. The song is jolted each time it hits. The chorus finds Adams pleading desperately with the title’s question. He’s hoping against hope for a positive answer, but knows there are none. There could be no better way to start an album primarily focused on the separation of wife and husband.
There is a clouded Eighties lens over the sounds of these songs. The drums sound 25-feet in diameter. The guitarwork twangs like Johnny Marr and pasted in the background are thick “Streets of Philadelphia”-era Springsteen organs. Adams switches between an electric and an acoustic guitar. The harmonica takes its seat in the front for “Doomsday,” a rambling look back at a finished relationship. The drums are big and roll through with echoes.
Adams’ mumble buzz heavy on “Haunted House” as he paces the place where love once lived. The acoustic guitar strums with kitchen reverberation. “My friends all disappeared / They all got lost,” he sings. On “Shiver and Shake” Adams starts to regretfully accept his circumstances. His fingers barely drag across the guitar. The organ matches the tremble in his voice as he tries, woefully, to drag himself forward. “I miss you so much / I shiver and I shake,” he sings. “I’ve been waiting here like a dog at the door / You used to throw me scraps / You don’t do that anymore.”
On the sixth song, “To Be Without You,” at the halfway point of the album, Adams begins to make amends with the pain of his separation and starts to confront his new reality. The second half of the album continues with Adams lifting himself up with song. “Anything I Say To You Now,” “Breakdown” and “Tightrope,” with its streetlight saxophone moping along, are the best of these.
In Prisoner Ryan Adams has given the world another classic album to reach for in times of intense heartbreak (‘cause there’s never been a shortage of demand). He gets down the raw, misguided emotions that come when those feelings turn. Prisoner will heal anyone in distress as I’m sure it’s already been cried on by the millions.