Well, that was a rough one. Ryan Adams’ latest effort, Prisoner, is a harrowing, and barely disguised, outpouring of catharsis stemming from his recent divorce and subsequent life apart from Mandy Moore. You can sense her presence, or perhaps rather her absence, looming in every corner of this album. You can hear the breakdown threatening to occur in every note Adams sings. It’s such a deeply personal thing that at times you almost feel bad for listening to it. Almost, but not quite.
Of course, at its heart, this is still a Ryan Adams record. If you’re not already a fan, I doubt it’s going to sway you to his side, but it probably won’t drive you away, either. Taylor Swift-related gimmicks aside, we generally know what to expect from him at this point: some plaintive singing and sighing, a mixture of alt-country twang and 80’s arena rock (for all the urban myths surrounding the whole Summer of ’69 thing, Ryan is starting to sound suspiciously like Bryan here), at least one song about trains, and a lot of general awkwardness at listening to someone perform the musical equivalent of essentially cutting open a vein and bleeding all over the bathroom floor. Not that Adams is suicidal, mind you – it’s just an intensely personal album, and it feels a bit odd at times to be present for these incredibly intimate moments.
He sings lines like “I see you with some guy laughing like you never even knew I was alive” on “Shiver and Shake,” or talks about waiting a thousand years for her (the grand, interminable, ever-present Her) to come back on “Doomsday” without a trace of irony or even really self-awareness. Which is a little odd, considering Adams is one of the more self-aware musicians out there. In lesser hands, lyrics like these wouldn’t work. I’m not fully convinced that they entirely work here (at times the lines comes across as just plain mopey or cliched, like a high schooler’s idea of love poetry), but Adams has a way of selling his desperation that, for the most part, drives the heartbreak and sorrow home.
Ultimately, Prisoner is Adams alone in a cell, dwelling on all of the frustration and heartache that brought him to this point, driving his head against the bricks and the steel door. That he would let us take a peek through the bars at him in this state, at his most vulnerable, is to his credit and it makes the album feel important, if not musically, at least personally. And Adams never lets it feel masturbatory. But for someone who has practically made a career for himself writing songs about heartbreak, Prisoner is not his best outing on the subject. In fact, were it not for knowing the greater context of Adams’ divorce, I don’t know that I would have resonated with this album much at all. But the context is there, and knowing it gives these songs a depth they would otherwise lack.
Final Verdict: 5 out of 10.