To give a little perspective, David Ryan Adams is entering his seventeenth year as a solo artist, and in that time, he’s released fourteen studio albums. This does not include his live concert recordings released as multi-LP boxed sets, nor does it include his one-off sci-fi heavy metal concept album, Orion.
This tally also doesn’t include everything that he recorded and was subsequently shelved—either due to his contentious relationship with his label of a decade, Lost Highway, or his own dissatisfaction.
For every album that Ryan Adams releases, there’s probably one, if not more, sitting locked away in a vault somewhere.
After burning out nearly completely due to substance abuse and alcoholism in 2008, as well as his ongoing health problems from Ménière’s disease, Adams retired from music and married actress and former teen pop singer Mandy Moore, only to return in 2011 with the self-aware, reflective, and somewhat maudlin Ashes and Fire.
Around the time of the release of his self-titled album in 2014, there were rumblings that his marriage was over. During this tumultuous time for him, he found comfort in, of all things, Taylor Swift’s 1989, and spent a bulk of 2015 re-arranging it and recording it, releasing his own version—an album that launched a million thinkpieces (including a roundtable discussion on this very site).
During the promotion of 1989, Adams said he was already working on another studio album, and that it was going to be like his classic Love is Hell, only sadder.
However, his fifteenth album, Prisoner, is not a “spiritual sequel” to Love is Hell. There are echoes of it at times, yes, sure, but overall, it is cut from the same cloth as his self-titled album, mixing together his penchant for acoustic singer/songwriter material with his adoration of “classic” rock, i.e. Bruce Springsteen. I mean, one song near the end has a god damn saxophone solo in it.
If 1989 was his way of coping with his marriage ending, Prisoner is his divorce record. Not as ambiguous as the underlying currents of strife found tucked in Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, nor is it as bitterly spirited as, say, Marvin Gaye’s double album Here, My Dear. Heartbroken and throwing it all on the table unabashedly, Adams titles songs bluntly, like “Do You Still Love Me?,” “To Be Without You,” and “We Disappear”; he writes lyrics like “I’m a prisoner for your love,” and “I don’t wanna live in this haunted house anymore.”
I stop short of calling Prisoner a cry for help, but it comes damn near close at times.
Ryan Adams is no stranger to emotional weight. He jokes about how sad his songs are in his infamous between-song banter when he performs live, and he is currently offering a t-shirt in his online store that reads “I listen to Ryan Adams because I’m very emotional right now.” The guy knows how to hurt your feelings with a song, there’s no doubt about it. But, maybe it’s the fact there is just so much emotional weight within Prisoner that makes it one of his least accessible—at first anyway. It’s not a difficult or demanding listen (no offense, but ‘sad white person music’ rarely is); no, it’s just one of his more uneven albums, and it takes a while to work through that, to unpack all the emotion of the album, and then find out where you fit in as a listener.
“Do You Still Love Me?,” the album’s opening track, first single, and I suppose, mission statement for what follows, is dramatic and theatrical—low lying organ drones with bursts of clanging electric guitar power the song through as Adams begins what goes on to become his twelve song confessional: “What can I say? I didn’t want it to change. But in my mind, it’s all so strange,” he belts out in a wounded rasp.
Over the course of the last seventeen years, one thing Adams has lacked is a sonic focus.
At times, that’s played to his advantage, and other times, it hasn’t worked as well (see 2003’s Rock N Roll.) Since returning to music in 2011, he has been able to hone things in slightly; on Prisoner, while pulling from a “rock” sound, there are still traces of his alt. country days, like the mournful harmonica that shows up on the reverb heavy “Doomsday,” and the plaintive acoustic guitar plucks of the shuffling “To Be Without You.”
Structurally, Prisoner kind of drags slightly in the middle section. It’s frontloaded with its best material, and following the “I’m on Fire” aping “Shiver and Shake,” the pacing slows down pretty drastically, and Adams struggles to get things back on track as the record heads towards its conclusion. The shimmering “Anything I Say To You Now” is a mid-section highlight, but he picks things up quality wise within the album’s final three songs: on “Broken Anyway,” he combines that dreamy guitar shimmer with the acoustic strumming with successful, earnest results; “Tightrope” boasts the aforementioned saxophone solo, but you know what—it (surprisingly) works as it is set alongside a rollicking, distant piano and Adams’ anguished caterwauling; and the moody, driving “We Disappear,” at first, doesn’t seem like a likely candidate for a closing track, but if “Do You Still Love Me?” served as a mission statement, this is the logical conclusion—“Broken mirror and my hand starts to bleed. Wish I could explain but it hurts to breathe. Didn’t fit in my chest, so I wore it on my sleeve….we disappear.”
Prisoner is not a perfect album, and truthfully no Ryan Adams album is perfect.
No, not even 1989, not even Heartbreaker or Love is Hell or Cold Roses. They all have some kind of flaw, however small. It has its share of noteworthy moments, but those are juxtaposed against less successful songs, and overall, the pacing runs a little on the long side.
For someone who has scattered pieces of themselves throughout seventeen plus years of sad songs, dressed up through heavy-handed metaphors and imagery, Prisoner is also Adams’ most directly personal, which may account for some of the trepidation I still feel even after multiple listens. When it works, it really works, but it’s not a “fun” record by any means. Not that it needs to be, but there is no resolution or closure by the end of Prisoner, and as Adams exorcises his marital demons, the album does its best to keep you at an arm’s length.
As a postscript of sorts, it seems worth mentioning all the ways with which one can purchase Prisoner, if one were so inclined.
There are standard vinyl and compact disc editions, but because we crossed the threshold of “peak vinyl” at some point in recent years, there are other, collectable editions out there as well.
First is the red vinyl, available exclusively at independent record stores. In a sharp and confusing juxtaposition, there is a version with alternate cover art (an apple bong), which is a Barnes and Noble exclusive.
Hey, look, say what you will about Barnes and Noble but they are doubling down on the vinyl resurgence and it’s probably paying off for them.
Lastly, and probably created to combat the fact that Prisoner leaked onto the internet when Barack Obama was still President, is the “End of The World” boxed set, which spreads the album across twelve individual 7” singles, packed with b-sides (seventeen of them in total), all crammed into a case that also turns into a 2-D play set of sorts. The whole thing seems pretty jokey and irritating, and boasting a price tag of $150, one has to wonder whom the intended audience something like this is for.