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Sensitive, introspective alt-country has always seemed like a strange niche to find an artist as prolific, eccentric, and easily bored as Ryan Adams. But when not recording metal one-offs or covering Taylor Swift albums in their entirety, he is only too happy to remind us why his career has lasted so long.
Prisoner () eschews the stadium-filling intensity of his 2014 self-titled album, instead marking a return to the muted steadiness and thematic unity of 2011’s Ashes and Fire, with one important difference. Ashes was made during an unusually calm period in his life, and his domestic and personal stability accordingly saw him looking back on the emotional turmoil of his 30s with a detached, almost nostalgic eye. The years since then have been turbulent. Many of the songs on Prisoner were written during the breakdown of his marriage with Mandy Moore, and this time, Adams’s introspective musings feel distinctly more urgent than they did on Ashes.
While Adams tends to earn far more media attention for his eclectic covers and homages than his more standard offerings, the line between the two is more porous than the common comparison lets on. As surprising (or gimmicky) as they were, these one-offs remained rooted in the poignant, atmospheric, folk-inflected sound that he has cultivated with only slight variations since his earliest solo work. Even when covering Taylor Swift’s 1989, he made the songs his own, and in some cases rendered them nearly indistinguishable from the originals, and thematic parallels are easily drawn between the two.
In both tone and substance, “Shiver and Shake” reads almost as a reprisal to his minor key interpretation of “Shake It Off.” The ease with which Adams ported Swift’s energetic pop into his distinct brand of subdued alt-country says more about the versatility of the originals than about his ability, but it’s proof that for all his genre-hopping side projects, he is very much rooted in his unmistakable personal style.
Faithfulness to style and the album’s overall thematic wholeness seem to be Adams’s paramount concerns on Prisoner. As a result, the album succeeds admirably in capturing the introversion and the sense of listlessnes that come in the aftermath of heartbreak, though it is hard to point to one track or moment that stands out as particularly memorable. The drums, church organ, and crashing guitars of the opener, “Do You Still Love Me,” are as close as he gets to the elation of his last two albums.
After that brief catharsis, he confines himself to decidedly low-key songs carried by layers of warm steel guitar and echoing synths. The carefully arranged instrumentation provides an intimate foundation for Adams to lay out his emotions with a stunning immediacy, wavering between isolation, turmoil, emptiness, and even nostalgia. According to both Adams and Moore, the separation was amicable, and Prisoner gives us no reason to think it was otherwise. Amid all the emotions he explores on the album, spite and bitterness are notably absent. More importantly, Adams wastes no time asking why the two of them drifted apart, or pleading to go back to the way things were. He already knows what drove them apart, and that the separation is permanent. Though he may lament what he might have done differently or what his relationship could have been, there is a clear-eyed sense of acceptance as well. As if to make the point definitively, the album closes out to “We Disappear,” a pained yet graceful acknowledgement that certain things are just not meant to last.
Adams would likely be the first to admit that such an approach carries with it some risk. Anyone who has experienced one will attest, breakups may be intense, they are also highly personal crises. While the world might indeed feel like it is ending for those involved, the outside world continues to go about its business. Months or years after such a breakup, even we might eventually look back on our own melodrama and cringe. The challenge Adams sets for himself in reflecting on his divorce is to deal with an event that is personally devastating, yet in the grand scheme of things, unremarkably common. As a breakup album, Prisoner retreads a lot of familiar emotional ground, but thoughtful, self-aware maturity is ultimately what saves the album from coming off as schmaltzy, though at times it veers dangerously close.
Adams is far from the first artist to build an album around the intense emotions that accompany heartbreak, but few could state them with such directness and get away with it. Prisoner is a solid (if not exactly remarkable) example of Ryan Adams playing to the strengths that have worked for him in the past. Already-converted fans will find themselves in familiar territory, but will find little to object to. Meanwhile, latecomers who only climbed the wagon after the 1989 cover should still find plenty to like about Prisoner, and will be able to latch onto the sincerity and the quiet emotional intensity of his songwriting. At his best, that songwriting offers a sincere and brutal honesty, and where this album works, it works precisely because he has so many complicated and messy emotions to be brutally sincere about.
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