Album Review: ‘Prisoner’ by Ryan Adams

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‘Prisoner’ by Ryan Adams album cover. Photo:

by Abby Ferguson

To be perfectly honest, as much as I like Ryan Adams, I don’t avidly follow his personal life. However, three songs into my first listening of his newest album Prisoner, I was wrangling with the ScotRail wifi to check if all was well with his marriage. He and Mandy Moore divorced last year.

Prisoner is very much an album that reflects on that. Adams is no stranger to heartbroken, sad-song territory – which has meant critical reception to this album has been underpinned by accusations that he is sitting prettily in his comfort zone, reworking predictable but nonetheless great songs.

Objectively, I can see the issues with what might be called over-indulgent emotional content throughout the album, however on a personal level, I can’t fault it. It’s not often I fall in love with an album in its entirety, I usually pick up on songs which speak to me the most and disregard the rest until a later date, but this is a rare exception. It’s also worth mentioning that due to my affinity for older music, this is the first new release in a long time I’ve been truly excited about, and have actually been talking about. While Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town is a masterpiece, I’m almost forty years too late to the party in terms of revealing it to people, yet elements of Prisoner bring my long-term hero to mind.

As for the tracks themselves, the opening of ‘Do You Still Love Me?’ is the perfect beginning to an album of mostly slower, folksier songs. It offsets them nicely with its gut-punching power chords, with Adams crying out: “Do you still love me, babe?” to an entity which clearly doesn’t anymore – raw and visceral but yet the song still has enough power behind it to make it a memorable rock ballad. It’s unsteady and erratic throughout, with an almost nervous tone to it, giving us the perfect snapshot of Adams’ headspace, contextualising the rest of the album.

Contrastingly, ‘Shiver and Shake’ tumbles into an almost ethereal lament of lost love. Adams’ voice has a gravitas to it that resonates above the music, really communicating his story to the listener. Some of the best lyrical work on the album is featured in this song, minimal enough that it’s not overkill, yet personal and intricate: “I’ve been waiting here like a dog at the door/ You used to throw me scraps, you don’t do it anymore.”

Known to take inspiration from other artists, Adams has certainly emulated some strong Springsteen vibes on ‘Doomsday’. There is the unmistakable and memorable presence of a harmonica riff, which is a direct link to Springsteen’s work in the Americana genre, and lyrically, on both this track and ‘Haunted House’ the subject matter and terminology used is reminiscent of Tunnel of Love, Springsteen’s own divorce album. If this alone wasn’t referential enough, Adams’ ‘Outbound Train’ bears a remarkably similar title to Springsteen’s ‘Downbound Train’, both songs about the breakdown of a long-term relationship.

‘Breakdown’ and ‘To Be Without You’ are also worth mentioning. While ‘Breakdown’ is angry and desperate, layered with juxtaposing intricate guitar work, ‘To Be Without You’ is easy-going and upbeat at surface level, with the lyrics betraying a more wistful state of mind, giving the track a nice ambiguity, and a break to the album’s heavier material without betraying the honesty Adams has maintained.

Overall, I can admit that this album won’t be for everyone, but for any fans of rock or folk-rock I can definitely recommend it. It might take a few listens but the whole thing is very masterfully executed, and each song has something unique to it. For me, I had a preexisting love for Ryan Adams, which began the first time I listened to Gold, and Prisoner hasn’t disappointed.

Tracks from Prisoner have infiltrated almost every playlist I’m currently listening to, and with good reason. As a fan of older music, it’s just really nice to be excited about something that’s happening right now.

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