Ryan Adams – Prisoner
Review By Mike DeAngelo:
It’s strange how your tastes change and expand as you get older. The artists you have to wrestle with become the most beloved. If you would have asked me 10-15 years ago about my feelings toward Ryan Adams & his music, I probably would have cringed and told you to listen to Dashboard Confessional or Something Corporate. Obviously, I was an idiot, but I was a young. (What I would give to slap my younger self across the face just once…for more reasons than one.) My main gripe with Ryan at the time was due to his country music tendencies, which were either prominent or sprinkled in every song that I was shown back in the day. I despised country music with a fiery passion – I’ve since loosened my stance and taken an interest in alt-country and bluegrass bands, but top 40 country still makes everything in my body tense up.
Finally, one day around five years ago, I threw on Ryan Adams’ record, Gold, and something just clicked. I didn’t like all of it, but I found some songs that would be my entry point into his music. After that, I was able to quickly listen through multiple albums and piece together a mix of songs I titled, “The Only Ryan Adams Songs I Can Stand.” I listened to that mix over and over. Eventually, it wasn’t enough, so I dove back into his albums (released & unreleased) and that mix expanded further and further to the point where I just have all of his albums on a playlist that I listen to far more often that just about anything else. One reason is that my tastes changed, but his tastes also grew closer to my own. This finally culminated in the release of his self-titled record – by far his most cohesive and straight-forward minimalist rock album. A lot of his die-hard fans don’t care for it, as they yearn for something more instrumentally akin to his days with The Cardinals, but that’s the album that solidified Ryan Adams as a musical icon to me. It was one sound honed to perfection and, unlike some of his earlier, more long-winded works, does not come close to overstaying its welcome.
I rolled with it when he covered T-Swift, but I was really waiting to hear what the next progression would be from his self-titled record. I can say having listened to Prisoner (In stores Friday!) about a dozen times already that he has far exceeded my expectations, crafting not only a worthy successor to his self-titled album, but quite possibly his best overall album yet.
Anyone who has a cursory knowledge of Ryan knows that he recently went through a long and rough divorce from singer/actress, Mandy Moore. Having written some of his best records out of a break-up, fans of Ryan know to expect the divorce to be addressed head-on; however, Ryan dedicates the entire album to the subject from start to finish.
The album begins with his 80’s rock-inspired “Do You Still Love Me?” It conjures the anger, bitterness, and depression so succinctly in its lyrics, tipping the listener off to the journey ahead – an album not about a measly break-up, but a separation from someone deeply intertwined into the fabric of who you’ve become. That's right - you’re going to hear him wrestle through this, and you’re going to like it!
From anger, he moves deeper into examining the feeling of being unwillingly ripped away from the person you love (Prisoner), vowing to wait for their return (Doomsday), the misery and loneliness of the wait (Haunted House, Shiver and Shake), and hitting the rock-bottom point of that loneliness (To Be Without You). The next half is the continuing struggle with coming to terms with the frustration, the returning anger and depression, attempts to justify the loss, and, ultimately, a sad acceptance. In the end, he’s not OK, but he’s come to accept his situation.
Just briefly thinking about these things can send someone into a depression spiral, but somehow the record doesn’t feel as depressing as some of his other break-up albums. The songs are produced and constructed in a way that allows you to get lost in the sound, which at times is downright peppy for Ryan Adams.
If you ignore the lyrics and focus on the music, the record comes across as a bridge between his self-titled record and his singer-songwriter-ish days. Fans looking for something like Gold and Heartbreaker may enjoy hearing the acoustic guitar and harmonica return to a prominent place in the mix, as the self-titled record basically abandoned them altogether. Yet, Prisoner wisely maintains an overall sound that makes the record sound like it is of one whole piece. It’s not an extended rumination and exploration of one sound like his self-titled record is, but it keeps the backbone of that sound and loosens the boundaries a bit, while adding a few surprises for his longtime listeners.
Overall, Prisoner is a great place for those unfamiliar with his music to jump on, as it’s some of his most accessible music yet that combines his many sounds into one succinct, emotional, beautiful, and rockin’ album. Best of all, like his self-titled album, it doesn’t overstay its welcome – leaving the audience wanting to hear it over and over again…and, trust me, I’m going to wear this sucker out.