Love is Hell. The sentiment that Ryan Adams put forth over a decade ago seems downright prophetic now. His newest LP, Prisoner, is out today via PaxAm, and it finds the Heartbreaker assessing the damages of his battered heart following his divorce last year. The 12 tracks on his 15th album of new material are introspective but not mournful. He’s admitting that he’s been through through some emotional upheaval but is still fighting. Resilient reflection is at the heart of every song, and this brutal honesty is exactly what draws Ryan Adams closer to his fans.
For nearly the past two years, Ryan Adams has been riding a roller coaster. His 2015 cover album of Taylor Swift’s 1989 was widely applauded, including us saying it was (way) better than the original. Last summer, he gathered some of his friends to form a bluegrass covers band. And of course, he experienced a monumental change in his personal life, which has resulted in Adams delivering one of the most remarkable heartbreak / love albums over the past decade with Prisoner.
The album’s title is obviously self-evident – a man still in love with his ex-wife and entrapped by the deep-seeded emotions of their time together. Yet instead of lashing out or mourning what was, the album is a revelation into the mind and heart of one of this generation’s finest singer-songwriters. It is simultaneously a diary of Adams’ feelings, an apology for the end of the relationship, and an acknowledgement that all things must end. On the penultimate track, “Tightrope”, Ryan Adams sings, “All I ever wanted is to see you make me smile.” This one lyric defines everything that is Prisoner – introspective, raw, emotional, and a waning thread of hope.
This is just one of the album’s highlights. The opening track, “Do You Still Love Me”, is euphoric yet reflective. “Doomsday” echoes the unrestrained Adams during his Love Is Hell days. On “Haunted House”, Adams’ songwriting shines through, as his home has become his prison. With “Anything I Say To You Now”, an air of The War on Drugs can be heard, showcasing that subtly Adams continues to grow as a musician. But one thing that remains the same and what we have come to learn throughout his career – when Adams channels his pain in his music, the songs are usually incredibly memorable. Or in this case, an album in Prisoner that will leave its listeners captivated for a very long time.
From the ’80s-inspired power rock chords of the opening track (“Do You Still Love Me”), you know this album will pack an emotional punch. While it’s easy to dismiss those retro influences as cliché (Ryan cites AC/DC, ELO, and Bruce Springsteen as inspirations for this album), they’re an authentic part of Adams’ repertoire. He’s not afraid of bold rock hooks; he’s equally unafraid of showing his bruises. Prisoner is emotionally raw – anything less would be a departure – but none of the songs come across as whiny in tone. You might expect a new divorcé to pen bitter songs about his ex, but here the acrimony takes a backseat to pensive acceptance. This alone makes the album more approachable to a wider audience. Both indie rock and alt/country fans can surely relate to its theme of heartbreak. Fans of early-era Adams will appreciate “Doomsday” and its introspective tones.
The standout track, “To Be Without You”, succinctly captures the post-breakup feelings we’ve all felt at one time. His gentle delivery of lyrics like “nothing really matters any more” come across as soothing. When love is gone and you wake the next morning with an aching heart, you want comfort. This song gives plenty, as does the rest of Prisoner. Years from now, this album will be regarded as one of his best.
Having been through a divorce, this record hits home. There is definite sadness surrounding the break up of Ryan Adams and Mandy Moore’s marriage. We all want to hope for the best, and we want love to last forever. Mandy Moore is now on the hit NBC show This Is Us, and the Valentine’s week episode was interesting as a couple on the show just announced their divorce and the character states that you either stop paying attention to each other and you give up, or you fight. Mandy Moore’s character and her on-screen husband vow to fight for their relationship on the same day that Ryan Adams streams Prisoner. The timing is kind of ironic.
Regardless of the circumstances of their split, Ryan Adams has released another stellar set of songs from deep within his soul. The tone throughout is laid back with a Springsteen-esque vibe, and the lyrics on some tracks cut to the core. Going through a divorce or end of a serious relationship can be surreal – your entire world is different, changed forever. “Shiver and Shake” chronicles just that with “I close my eyes and see you with some guy – laughing like you never even knew I was alive“. It is strange how relationships abruptly end and life is just supposed to go on, but a part of you has forever changed. “Do You Still Love Me?”, “To Be Without You” and “Doomsday” provide the perfect songs to therapeutically get through a hard break up and just cry your heart out. Ryan Adams is one of the best songwriters of this recent age and once again he proves it. Hopefully though, he has worked through this dark time with his writing and he is realizing that life does go on and it is possible to love again and to experience joy and happiness.
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