Premature Evaluation: Ryan Adams Prisoner
You usually can’t take Ryan Adams seriously when he discusses his influences. He’s a metalhead, a hardcore acolyte, and a diehard Simple Minds fan. None of those, uh, exactly factor into his music stylistically; you can only catch glimpses in detours like Orion or 1984, stuff that exists off to the side of the main Ryan Adams canon and/or narrative. When he covered Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is” in 2014, or when he covered Bryan Adams’ “Summer Of ’69” in 2015, you’d be forgiven for assuming that’s just Ryan Adams doing vaguely tongue-in-cheek Ryan Adams shit. (Discounting the knotted history behind the latter example.)
Of course, that had all changed within the context of his 2014 self-titled album, the record on which he indulged influences from ’80s heartland rock — then a deeply uncool strain of music history to mine. “Summer Of ’69” made sense there. Foreigner, still not so much. So things really changed when he released the first song from his new album Prisoner, “Do You Still Love Me?”
“Do You Still Love Me?” isn’t quite a power ballad, but it does sound very much like big mainstream ’80s rock music — still not the coolest thing to mine, but seemingly one of the last strands of that decade left for revival. And it’s a hell of a song. As an opener, it’s reminiscent of how “Gimme Something Good” worked on Ryan Adams, unhurried but rousing rock songs serving as overture and introduction to all that follows on their respective albums. It was a striking suggestion of what was to come: Aesthetically, this both built on the directions Adams explored on Ryan Adams and his full-length album cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 in 2015, all of it steeped in flourishes from the ’80s rock idiom, and suggested a subtle left turn into harder arena-rock territory. For an artist who used to try on different genres and their attendant personas from album to album, it was an interesting portrait of Ryan Adams as mature, middle-aged songwriter: still able to surprise but without the stunts of his youth, finding a rich new vein for his songwriting in the least expected corners of music history. As it turns out, though, “Do You Still Love Me?” was also a feint.
Prisoner is Adams’ first full-length of original material since his divorce from Mandy Moore. This has shaped our perception of the album from well before its release. As far back as late 2015, he was talking about the record as a potential successor to Love Is Hell. He said he returned to that aesthetic and had recorded 23 songs, suggesting a new double album that, though unlikely to get granular or literal with the circumstances of Adams’ life—despite being a great chronicler of heartbreak, Adams has never actually been as confessional a writer as his reputation or “singer-songwriter” status might suggest—would be a massive, multi-faceted document of relationships and how they fall apart. Though he’s hit a new prolific phase in recent years, Adams slowed down and took his time with Prisoner (it was originally due out last year), and by the time “Do You Still Love Me?” came out in December, it was easy to think maybe the whole thing had mutated. It was easy to imagine that, somehow, we’d be getting an album full of Adams processing his grief via ’80s power-rock. And if it all sounded as good as that lead single, it was sure to be an immediately unique and engrossing listen.
The album didn’t turn out to be any of those things, exactly. What does seem plain about it is that, as of this moment, it forms a trilogy with Ryan Adams and 1989. After aborting an attempt at an Ashes & Fire followup with producer Glyn Johns, Ryan Adams marked the first time Adams took to his own Pax Am Studios for one of his LPs, and the decision has proven bountiful: since late 2014, it was the self-titled, then a deluge of Pax Am singles (altogether making up several more albums’ worth of material), the 1989 cover, and now Prisoner. There’s also an emotional arc amongst the three full-lengths. Ryan Adams preceded the announcement of Adams’ divorce by a few months, 1989 was his way of throwing himself back into work searching for catharsis, and Prisoner is the long-awaited album of original material reckoning with the end of his marriage.
Aside from assuming Adams would come up with some great songs while dealing with that loss, there was good reason to be excited for Prisoner just by virtue of it being the next installment in his Pax Am days. After his shape-shifting early days, Adams had settled into a kind of groove by the late ’00s. Easy Tiger and Cardinology were the first time he started making “Ryan Adams” albums, cramming in all the archetypes and approaches you’d expect from him at that point, but eliding them together into an approachable sound that, at times, teetered dangerously close to some kind of adult-contemporary rock. Same went for Ashes & Fire, figured as a kind of return-to-form since its predominantly acoustic songs recalled Heartbreaker. None of it was bad. Some of it was just inert, and left you thinking that Adams still had better albums in him somewhere. That’s part of why Ryan Adams was such a stunning release. Left to his own devices at Pax Am, Adams recorded a humid ’80s-indebted record, quietly rebooting his sound and setting the stage for a potential creative resurgence in his late 30s. (It should be noted that, due to Adams’ young age when he first started out in Whiskeytown and also due to his avalanche of material through the ’00s, Ryan Adams felt not dissimilar from when a classic rockstar came out with a late-period masterpiece after 10 or 15 years in the wilderness despite the fact that Adams wasn’t yet 40.)
All of that meant that there was a high bar set for Prisoner. And during my initial listens, there was something disappointing about it. It wasn’t bad—Ryan Adams doesn’t really make bad records, and especially now he seems too savvy to do so. It just felt like there was supposed to be something there that was missing.
There were beautiful, ear-worm songs, of course. The aforementioned “Do You Still Love Me?” announced itself as one of the best openers on any of Adams’ records. “Shiver And Shake” is his own version of his near-complete rewrite of “Shake It Off on 1989—it was one of that album’s highlights then, and one of Prisoner’s highlights now. A sparse meditation buoyed on chilly-yet-atmospheric synth textures, it (like “Shake It Off”) acts as Adams’ take on Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire,” but full of loss and yearning instead of lust. (“Close my eyes, I see you with some guy/ Laughing like you never even knew I was alive,” he sings on the track.) Continuing with both the ’80s-fixation and the Springsteen influence, “Outbound Train” plays like something the Boss might’ve recorded for a lost album between Born In The U.S.A. and Tunnel Of Love. True to its name, it’s a song that tumbles forward. And while several of the album’s early tracks deal with the divorce in the moment (“Do you still love me, babe?” or “I am a prisoner for your love” or “My love, you said you’d love me until doomsday comes/ Did doomsday come?”), “Outbound Train” is, fittingly, one of the tracks that hurtles into the aftermath.
But so much of the rest of the album felt like a “Ryan Adams” album, not unlike the way Easy Tiger and Cardinology did, despite the disparities in aesthetic and production. Any artist has certain tropes in their music, but with the sheer glut of Ryan Adams material out there, there are certain songs (even some of his best ones) that fall into this place where you can just tell where they’re going to go. It’s easy to feel like you’ve already heard an Adams chorus before, or to get the verse of one of his songs stuck in your head alongside the refrain of a different one as if they weren’t separated by a decade but were in fact part of the same composition.
On the first several listens, there are a lot of songs on Prisoner that feel like they’re in the latter category. The title track does sound a lot like Love Is Hell, but with 12 or 13 years of removal it doesn’t have the same monochrome melancholy that enriched that album’s sound. “Doomsday” has a harmonica and jangle-guitar opening you’d swear you’ve heard in a dozen Adams songs before, even if you haven’t. “Haunted House,” “Broken Anyway,” “Tightrope” and “To Be Without You,” despite little tweaks, all feel as if they could have been on at least half a dozen other DRA records.
If you’re a Ryan Adams fan, none of that is exactly a bad thing — “To Be Without You” in particular is one of the album’s best and most heartrending songs. It just means that Prisoner initially comes across as less of a Big Statement, less of an album destined to be a pillar in an already-crowded catalog against which all of his other work is judged, like Heartbreaker and Cold Roses and, I’d argue, Ryan Adams became. It is not the wild idea that “Do You Still Love Me?” suggested. It is another Ryan Adams album.
But after a while, you might find yourself unable to stop listening to it. I listened to it in the background a lot, and it felt like another solid album by an artist I’ve liked since I was 15. Then little details kept yanking me deeper into its world. The interplay of the guitar-work and the post-chorus percussion embellishments in “To Be Without You” made it start to feel like a low-key Allman Brothers ballad. You might get obsessed with the way the distorted, formless guitars at the end of “We Disappear” start as heat lightning and then turn into simmering waves that consume the stray elements of human voice—Adams saying “We disappear,” a woman’s laughter. You might get obsessed with the cold synth whine hiding in the background of “Anything I Say To You Now,” a long unending sustain in the chorus that feels like that cold hand gripping your mind when there’s that one big loss in your life you can’t get out of your head.
Despite his many transformations, Ryan Adams was never a sonic innovator. He’s a craftsman. At first, Prisoner comes across as just another Ryan Adams album if you didn’t know the context. But repeated listens accentuate the understated collage of ’80s college-rock arpeggios and New Wave synths and Americana structures, all colliding within the wintriest atmosphere on an Adams album since Love Is Hell. Repeated listens reveal an album that is indeed another installment in the period of Pax Am creative resurgence — Prisoner is different enough from Ryan Adams, and begins to feel like a grief-stricken answer to that record. Whatever its sound or context, it’s an album full of songs built to last, to find your way into and to return to years later whenever you need them. That makes Prisoner another great Ryan Adams album, no context or narrative necessary.