Ryan Adams last released an album of original material in 2014. He and wife Mandy Moore split up in 2015. Therefore, according to a certain line of thought, his new album Prisoner must be a breakup record.
The timing works out, sure. But let’s see a show of hands: can anyone name a Ryan Adams LP that isn’t a breakup album? From his days fronting Whiskeytown to his current run of albums, he’s often at his best writing sad-bastard breakup songs. “Do I Wait,” “Lucky Now” and “My Wrecking Ball” are among the tunes he wrote and recorded during his period of connubial bliss, and they’re as wrenching as anything he’s written. It’s also worth noting that life events don’t necessarily have a linear influence on creativity, meaning that any breakup song on Adams’ latest could have been inspired by could have been inspired a specific split or an amalgam of past experiences.
“People will ask if this record is about my personal life,” he says in the press bio accompanying the album. “The answer is yes—but the answer has always been yes. I’ve always written from experience, as someone who’s used poetic and artistic license.”
So yes, Prisoner is a breakup album. Digging beneath its sleek surface reveals a soul in anguish, wrestling with questions of love, loneliness and desire on an almost existential level. It’s visceral on “Shiver and Shake,” a tortured, self-flagellating remembrance of a lover who’s no longer there. The title track takes a more expansive view, though it’s not any more optimistic: if love is a prison, Adams wonders, what could freedom possibly look like?
He spends many of these songs enduring lonely nights, battling the ghosts of memory in “Haunted House,” marveling how each successive night seems to last longer than the one before on “To Be Without You” and fighting off a creeping sense of stasis on “Outbound Train,” his acoustic guitar and a gently propulsive beat evoking a chugging locomotive. “I was so bored, I was so sure,” he sings. “I don’t know anything anymore.”
That’s powerful stuff, from one of the strongest songs on Prisoner. But part of the reason it stands out is that it veers away from the skillfully done, but largely uniform, sound of the rest of the album. He’s said it took weeks in the studio just to dial in the specific sounds in his head for each element of every song. You can hear it in the muted, slightly rotund thud of a tom-tom on “Do You Still Love Me,” the way the acoustic guitar he strums on “Haunted House” has the faintest gleam over electric guitars accented with subtle effects, a deep bass part on “Breakdown” that’s more spectral presence than corporeal rhythmic accompaniment.
It’s a beautiful sounding collection, no question. Sometimes, though, Adams’ exacting, just-so approach to the sonics undercuts the power of his lyrics. Getting the sound right is important, for sure, but Prisoner sometimes feels as though Adams got wrapped up in the musical dynamics at the expense of letting the emotional content stand on its own. As his extensive catalog shows, he’s at his best when he strikes a balance between them.
For more from Ryan Adams, check out this 2006 performance of “The End” in the player below.