Is Ryan Adams at his songwriting peak when he is sad? His magnificent debut album Heartbreaker contains classic alt-country tunes about, if you will, heartbreak like “Amy” and “Come Pick Me Up,” and the record opens with a conversation that Adams has with bluegrass musician David Rawlings about Morrissey before going into the first proper track, “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)"--a song about being sad and getting stoned. 2004’s critically acclaimed Love Is Hell contains a dark collection of dirges that found Adams writing his most morose, but personal songs to date. And now with Prisoner, Adams has put out his best album since his work with his former backing band The Cardinals in the mid-00s. Prisoner is a strong breakup album with incredibly well-crafted tracks that channel the feeling of a loss of love.
While Ryan Adams is from North Carolina, he’s had strong musical and geographic influences from New York and Nashville. But Adams’ influences aren’t what you would expect from a guy whose music is generally categorized under the genre of alt-country. Adams is a metalhead, a pinball fanatic, a massive admirer of The Smiths, a Star Wars geek, and a skateboarding enthusiast among other hobbies that he shows interest in. A former frontman of the seminal alt-country band Whiskeytown, Adams operates his own label PAX-AM on which he’s self-released a handful of his own records, including Prisoner, in recent years. He also made headlines in 2015 when he released a bizarre track-by-track cover album of Taylor Swift’s 1989.
The central event to which Prisoner elludes is Adams’ divorce from actress Mandy Moore. With almost all the material of this album dealing with heartbreak, Adams shows that even if you’re rooted in just one subject, you can still write an incredible chunk of music if written individually and creatively, even you’ve already written about it before. Take the title track “Prisoner." On the song Adams sings passive-aggressively in the chorus, “I know our love is wrong / I am a criminal / I am a prisoner." Then he turns around and with raw, broken emotion recites, “Maybe I'm a fool, doesn't matter anyway / My chest is all tight, my hearts still aches” on “Shake And Shiver." Listening to Prisoner start-to-finish, Adams makes himself vulnerable on every track while still meticulously giving each track its own flavor and personal touch to create a powerful record that holds its weight with every single song.
Prisoner is the sound of Ryan Adams in his wheelhouse of masterful songwriting that pays off in all 42 minutes of the album. Opening with the hard-driving and self-described AC/DC and Prince inspired lead single, “Will You Still Love Me?” and closing with the self-deprecating and reflective “We Disappear," Prisoner takes you on a journey of heartbreak through Adams’ songwriting talent, showing just how ingenious he can be in crafting his music. While I don’t know how well Adams is coping with his divorce after listening to this album, we can all commend him on his brave exposition of his aching soul that he puts on record for the listening pleasure of anyone that has the honor of listening to this extremely potent, remarkable album.