Despite his relative youth, it seems like a lifetime ago that Ryan Adams was the fresh-faced wunderkind fronting Whiskeytown and then, as a solo artist, effortlessly knocking out instant classics like Heartbreaker, Gold and Love Is Hell. He’s now a divorcé in his 40s, and while his famous productivity may not be what it once was (Prisoner is his first collection of original material since his self-titled album in 2014), he’s still an expert at documenting a broken heart.
For the spectre of Adams’ divorce from singer and actress Mandy Moore hangs heavy over Prisoner. At times you could be forgiven that, having famously covered Taylor Swift‘s entire 1989 album, Adams was this time tackling Bruce Springsteen‘s post-divorce classic Tunnel Of Love. In fact, there’s a direct line that runs from that self-titled effort, through his Swiftian dalliance, up to Prisoner. While many people wrote off Adams’ version of 1989 as a rock artist ‘mansplaining’ a female pop artist’s material, when seen in the light of his marriage woes, it sounds more like a cathartic attempt to find comfort in songs about heartache.
Prisoner also continues the self-titled album’s polished ’80s AOR sound, often to magnificent effect. Opening track Do You Still Love Me sounds like a particularly potent power ballad, both bombastic and aching, with lyrics that should be self-explanatory (“what can I say? I didn’t want it to change”), while the chiming guitars and harmonica of Doomsday could have easily sounded at home on Gold. Yet, as ever, it’s when Adams takes the mood down a notch that he really hits paydirt.
Shiver And Shake, in particular, stands alongside some of the best songs Adams has ever written, full of heartbroken desolation as he contemplates his ex moving on. “I close my eyes, I see you with some guy, laughing like you never even knew I was alive” Adams sings over a gentle acoustic strum, and the pain almost seeps out of the speakers. That’s followed by the wistful, almost accepting, To Be Without You – possibly Adams’ most poignant vocal performance on the album as he sings that “I feel empty, I feel tired, I feel worn…nothing really matters anymore”, his voice almost cracking with the emotion of it all.
Then there’s Haunted House, which could be seen as a follow-up to Love Is Hell’s The House Is Not For Sale – but this time round, Adams is selling the house full of memories of his lost love, rather than scaring off potential buyers. There’s even a hint of Adams’ old friend Swift in the deft jangle of Broken Anyway, while Anything I Say To You Now recalls the widescreen sheen of Easy Tiger. As ever with Adams, there’s a lot that’s derivative (even mining his own musical past) but when he does it with such easy expertise, it’s impossible not to be charmed.
Even moments that shouldn’t work – the lengthy saxophone solo in Tightrope, or the closing We Disappear which starts by apeing the opening chords to Purple Rain and ends with Adams coughing and laughing over the song’s fade-out – all fit together perfectly. Prisoner is an album that must have been tough for Adams to write and record, but ends up sounding like one of the great break-up albums of recent times.