Release Date: Feb 17, 2017
Record label: Blue Note
Genre(s): Alt-Country, Americana, Pop/Rock, Adult Alternative Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Contemporary Singer/Songwriter, Alternative Pop/Rock, Alternative Country-Rock
Ryan Adams once told the story of how he came to settle on the title of his debut record. After continually stalling on the decision, his manager called him, irate, and told him he had 15 seconds to come up with something. Adams hastily plucked Heartbreaker off of a poster on the wall that was advertising Mariah Carey's 1999 single of the same name.
For the past 20 years, Ryan Adams has been the poet laureate of unadulterated heartbreak, a master chronicler of the endless shapes and colors of romantic pain. So there's naturally been an undue degree of curiosity surrounding the singer's first record following his 2016 divorce from actress Mandy Moore; Indeed, there's no easier setup than a Ryan Adams "divorce record." Anyone unfairly expecting anything more salacious than another rock-solid collection of open-hearted statements from Adams may be disappointed in Prisoner. Despite his recent personal tumult, Adams' latest is not at all an unexpected turn for the 42 year-old singer-songwriter.
Ryan Adams simplified his songwriting on his new album, Prisoner, paring down the arrangements and refining the sentiments into a revealing examination of his attempts to mend his broken heart. Throughout these twelve somber but hopeful new songs, Adams openly addresses the desolation and pain resulting from the dissolution of his marriage in 2016 and the lingering grief over the death of his grandmother in 2011. He candidly transforms his despair into a work of stunning beauty that heals as well as inspires.
H aving tackled it obliquely on his track-by-track remake of Taylor Swift's 1989 two years ago, Ryan Adams's divorce from singer Mandy Moore takes centre stage on his 16th album. The sense of loss is all-pervasive on songs such as Shiver and Shake ("I miss you so much I shiver and I shake"), and the self-explanatory Breakdown and Broken Anyway. However, where such raw subject matter might once have found Adams tumbling into self-indulgence, here he turns in a set of fine, affecting songs, from the 80s soft rock of Anything I Say to You Now and Do You Still Love Me?, to the more introspective We Disappear, which recalls Paul Westerberg at his most intimate.
It's not an easy time to make a break-up album. Compared to the old days, when Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen did it and nobody really knew about the particulars behind the songs till well after the fact, Ryan Adams is releasing Prisoner with the whole internet-connected world in full knowledge of the fact that his marriage to Mandy Moore ended in divorce last year. The element of surprise is pretty much out the window, so Adams simply steers into the curve with an album that's entirely devoted to lost love.
Picking up the thread left hanging from 2014's eponymous album -- in retrospect, his 2015 cover of Taylor Swift's 1989 seems even more of a detour -- Ryan Adams winds up diving ever deeper into early-'80s sounds and sensibilities on Prisoner. Such supple sounds are carefully constructed with producer Don Was, a professional who helps Adams articulate the AOR ideals he initially essayed in 2014. Prisoner sounds warm, open, and inviting, its welcoming vibes contradicting how it's an album born out of pain, a record written in the aftermath of Adams' divorce from Mandy Moore.
It's hard to make American rock with the epic sweep of Springsteen or Petty and keep it free of bombast. Ryan Adams doesn't always manage it on Prisoner, his first album since he covered Taylor Swift's entire 1989 album a couple of years ago, and his first set of original material since 2014. But he comes close. Between the clanging power chords and the big choruses, Adams, who also produced Prisoner, leaves ample space for intimacy.
More so than his alt-country covers of zeitgeisty non- country albums or his arbitrary forays into arena rock and heavy metal wish- fulfilment, what Ryan Adams truly excels at is documenting and dissecting failed relationships. With 'Prisoner', the 42-year-old singer-songwriter is (conservatively speaking) on his third such album dedicated to doing just that, this time picking over the bones of his six-year marriage to actress Mandy Moore, which ended in 2015. Fortunately - both for us and, in a more cathartic sense, Adams himself - the passage of time between this album and 2004's 'Love Is Hell', or even his 2000 solo debut 'Heartbreaker', hasn't dulled his gift for creating art out of pain.
Ryan Adams is hard to pin down. Cutting his teeth in the '90s with alt-country darlings Whiskeytown (which followed Adams' punk band the Patty Duke Syndrome), he's been confounding and delighting fans and critics for decades based on both his brilliant, multifaceted songwriting and his inability to sit still with any one style. He's also damn prolific, which is perfect for anyone who waits with baited breath for an Adams release.
Ryan Adams's Prisoner is presented as a self-obsessed, completely one-sided documentation of the singer-songwriter's estrangement from his ex-wife, pop singer and actress Mandy Moore. Adams is utterly consumed by his own ego throughout the album, ruminating relentlessly on his personal devastation while barely even attempting to broach the hurt he may have caused in the course of his marriage. Every charge that could be leveled at Adams's approach to the torch song on this album—self-pitying, tonally dreary and monochromatic, melodramatic, even whiny—could just as easily describe even his best work.
On Prisoner, Ryan Adams' tortured soul makes for the most compelling of listens. Every single emotion is laid bare in brutally honest and open lyrics, emotions are all too often magnified by the sparse arrangements that accompany them. When Adams' soul seems to have found some kind of joy, however small, the listener hears it - and when Adams is hitting the very bottom of a pit of despair his guitar work amplifies those feelings.
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 ….
No one hearts the Eighties quite as aggressively as Ryan Adams. Prisoner is the latest installment in a spate of releases that have cast a fond eye back to those bygone glory days. 2014's 1984 was his Reagan-era hardcore homage, and the following year brought his college-rock reimagining of Taylor Swift's 1989. Here he poses eternal riddles like, "What would it have been like if Bruce Springsteen had been a floppy-haired indie-guitar nerd?" and "What if Johnny Marr was a jean-jacket dude from rural Minnesota?" For an ace retro conjurer like Adams, it's the equivalent of pondering the meaning of life itself.
Prisoner arrives as Ryan Adam's first LP since his much-publicized divorce from Mandy Moore, and given the singer-songwriter's reputation as a guy who's already written some of the world's finest break-up albums, it can be a little distressing to think about what might come next. Thankfully, though, he hasn't given us a set of cheap, overly earnest sad-sack ballads. Instead, Prisoner hears Adams embracing both his emotional growth and musical maturity, channelling that life experience into a clean, sharp and directly affecting sound.
Ryan Adams gravely misread the pop culture climate of 2015 and his fan letter to Taylor Swift was incinerated on arrival by the hot takes. But at least 1989 was a reminder of a time when he was generating reactions that ran deeper than a respect for craft. For most of the past decade, Adams has made albums of almost oppressive competence: whether the songs from Ashes & Fire and Ryan Adams took five minutes or five years of soul-searching to create, they all come out sounding equally effortless.
If we're to believe David Lynch's concept that you can't create - or create well, let's say - when suffering, the idea of the divorce album becomes a fickle beast. Few artists have mined the depths of heartache more than Ryan Adams, and more often than not with stunning, devastating results. Prisoner, then - his latest, heavily inspired by the end of his relationship with Mandy Moore - feels set up to be a perfect (albeit unfortunate) combination of artist and muse.
Heartache, for those ensnared in its unrelenting grip, is the most debilitating curse the universe can dream up. For the artist though, it can prove a double-edged sword, a strange kind of poisoned chalice that -- though it cripples -- provides fertile ground for artistic inspiration. From Michelangelo's Pieta to Sufjan Stevens' 'Carrie & Lowell', pain has inspired its fair share of artistic treasures.
Ryan Adams’ new record Prisoner is, thematically, a record of dissolution. In various interviews, Adams has affirmed the connection between the album and the end of his marriage to actor and singer Mandy Moore. In an interview with internet cat Lil Bub, he described it this way: "I was reflecting on the different states of desire, and what it means to be a prisoner of your own desire." ("Heavy," replied Lil Bub.) Stylistically, though, Prisoner is a reconciliation to two years with heavy pop cachet.
A weekly roundup of must-hear music from The Times' music staff. This week's picks include the latest from veteran singer/songwriter Ryan Adams, under-the-radar Americana artist Fred Eaglesmith and the outspoken country of Nikki Lane. Ryan Adams, "Prisoner" (Pax Am/Blue Note) One way to hear Adams' song-for-song interpretation of Taylor Swift's "1989" was as a coping device.