Ryan Adams made what was, to my ears, his best record ever with 2014’s self-titled effort. More diverse and consistent than Heartbreaker and less bloated than Gold, Love Is Hell, and Cold Roses, Ryan Adams was a tight, taut, and tense collection of songs that saw Adams dealing with the loss of his grandmother and the pressures of a troubled marriage. Two and a half years later, the once-prolific Adams returns with the proper follow-up to his self-titled record, and it’s the closest he’s ever come to making a sequel. Prisoner carries many of the sonic and lyrical hallmarks of its predecessor, from the reverb-heavy production to the clear influence of 1980s Springsteen and Petty records. “Do You Still Love Me,” the opener and lead single, even bears a strong resemblance to the last record’s first track, “Gimme Something Good.”
Despite the similarities, though, Prisoner is not a rehash. The story has progressed, and the marriage that was fraying on Ryan Adams—between Adams and actress Mandy Moore—has torn apart here. A clear divorce record, Prisoner is understandably downbeat for the majority of its running time. Suffice to say that the hair metal guitar solo that breaks through the mix on “Do You Still Love Me” is a red herring. This record is more likely to include a mournful harmonica solo than a big ripping guitar solo.
The obvious parallel here is Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love. When The Boss recorded that 1987 album, he was nearing the end of his first marriage and reacting to the stratospheric fame he’d gained with 1984’s Born in the U.S.A. The result was a sad, slow record, mostly dominated by acoustic guitars, wistful synths, and harmonica. Adams borrows the rubric for Prisoner, right down to the nostalgic ‘80s-style production. “Prisoner,” “Doomsday,” “Shiver and Shake,” “Outbound Train,” and “Tightrope” all sound like they’ve been around for 20 years. Of course, Adams has never been shy about wearing his influences proudly—see the Love Is Hell cut “Hotel Chelsea Nights,” which is basically a “Purple Rain” rewrite—but he’s good enough at making sounds his own at this point that Prisoner never feels like anything but a Ryan Adams record.
Prisoner is a heavy listen. It’s probably the most oppressively and consistently sad record that Adams has made since his first. It makes sense that early chatter around the LP has labeled it his best in at least a decade, given the fact that many critics have been waiting for Adams to make another Heartbreaker since he made the first Heartbreaker. Still, don’t drop the needle on this record if you aren’t ready to hurt a little bit. “Shiver and Shake”—arguably one of the four or five best songs Adams has ever written—is the biggest gut-punch. “Maybe I’m a fool, doesn’t matter anyway/My chest is all tight, my heart still aches,” he sings in the third verse. Often, breakup songs paint the exit from a relationship like a blaze of glory: a moment of noble and exquisite pain that lasts about as long as a climactic action sequence in a Hollywood film. Here, Adams compares the dull, lingering ache of heartbreak to drug withdrawals. “I’ve missed you so much, I shiver and I shake.” There is nothing exquisite or noble about this pain: it’s just there, eating away at him. “If I wait here any longer, I’ll just fade away,” the song concludes, because Adams is convinced that the man will disappear before the pain does.
“Shiver and Shake” is indicative of what makes Prisoner so effective as an album. This wasn’t a record written in a rash, cathartic outburst immediately following a breakup. Instead, it was an album written with space, time, and perspective. It’s an album that internalizes the long decline of a marriage and the exhausting strain of a very public divorce. Anger, blame, resentment, and emotional collapse are all there at the fringes of the songs, threatening to overwhelm the texture. But for the most part, the emotions of the record rest in less extreme ranges of the spectrum. As on “Shiver and Shake,” they are dull aches rather than sharp pains; scars rather than cuts; healed bones that still hurt rather than recent fractures that agonize. In these songs, Adams is far enough past the collapse of his relationship to have let resignation, acceptance, and even forgiveness take root, but he’s also self-aware enough to admit that the comedown from a seven-year marriage is going to take some time. “The walls are all cracked, the fan stutters in the room/Where we once slept, where I woke up next to you,” Adams sings in the splendid “Outbound Train,” still being caught off-guard by something that isn’t there anymore. He ponders running away from the places and things that remind him of her (“Sometimes a man don’t know/When he’s gotta walk away/I hear a rumbling and a moan/I feel like an outbound train”), but there’s a feeling in the song that he knows escape would just dull his pain—not cure it.
Though the core lyric of the title track may come across as cheesy on paper (“I am a prisoner/For your love”), it is absolutely the thesis statement of this record. Every song sees Adams sifting through the wreckage of his marriage, not quite falling apart but not quite moving on either. He ponders the value of broken vows on “Doomsday” (“Do you love me now ‘til doomsday comes?”). He loses touch with the rest of the world on “Haunted House” (“Nobody stops to write, nobody calls/My friends all disappear, they all get lost”). And he considers rebuilding his life on album closer “We Disappear,” but has no fucking idea where to start (“I’m not made of stone/I’m so blown away/Don’t know what’s the rubble/And the parts I want to save”). He is a prisoner of love, a prisoner of the past.
Prisoner is not as consistently brilliant as its predecessor. It’s more jagged and less polished, and the album rests in a morose, mid-tempo vein for most of its runtime, lacking the shots of adrenaline that the last album got out of songs like “Trouble” and “I Just Might.” But Prisoner is a more deeply felt and deeply inhabited collection of songs, proudly displaying the faults and mistakes of a man who isn’t sure where his story leads next. “Didn’t fit in my chest so I wore it on my sleeve” Adams sings at the end of the record, and it’s a strikingly fitting description for how he wrote these songs. In interviews, Adams is famously guarded and fiercely protective of his privacy. But on Prisoner, rather than try to obfuscate or glamorize, he just tells the truth. The result is the kind of breakup album that feels like it will be regarded as a genuine classic 20 years down the road. Even now, it’s tough to see it as anything but a jewel in Adams’ already-extensive discography.