I’ve had two weeks to soak up the sadness that is Ryan Adams’ new album, Prisoner. Time to share some thoughts.
I wasn’t sure how much I would like this album. It wasn’t that I doubted Adams’ ability to write about the end of his marriage to Mandy Moore: he’s been crafting amazing songs about heartbreak his entire career. No, what worried me was this was an album he had been working on, in one form or another, for nearly two years. As an artist who typically cranks out music as quickly as his muse delivers it, I wondered if this album would be over-thought, the magic of the earliest sessions lost as the edges – both emotionally and musically – got worn down over time.
Well, this album does have a polished feel to it. But that in no way takes away from its overall excellence.
As I listened to and considered it, I kept going back to the most common comparison critics and fans made in the days and weeks before the album’s release: Bruce Springsteen’s 1987 album Tunnel of Love. At the surface, there are a lot of reasons to line those albums up. In 1987 Bruce was approaching 40, coming off the most commercially successful album of his career, and was married to an actress who was about 10 years younger than him. When Adams began writing for this album two years ago, he was 40, coming off the most commercially successful album of his career, and had just announced that his marriage to an actress/singer who was 10 years younger his junior was ending. And Adams’ sound has been locked into a mid–80s vibe, that harkened back to Born in the USA, among others, for a few years now.
Beyond those biographical coincidences, there are certainly some common threads through both albums. Adams mostly stays in that Springsteen/Petty pocket of sound that comes so easily to him. A couple songs you could absolutely pick up and place on Tunnel.
But the more I listened to it, the more I realized while those two albums can be called cousins, there are some rather important differences between them.
On Tunnel, Springsteen turned his sound completely upside down, ditching the E. Street Band and recording much of it on his own, while dialing things back closer to his desolate Nebraska album from the epic feel of Born in the USA.
As I said, Prisoner sounds very much like where Adams has been on his last two albums. Where Tunnel can be stark and jarring, Prisoner often sounds beautiful musically.
More important was where these albums fell in each artists’ lives. Tunnel was revelatory and confessional. To the outside world, Springsteen and Julianne Phillips had a storybook marriage. The songs on that album revealed a broken relationship that failed to satisfy either partner, where at least one was looking elsewhere and, increasingly, thinking about doing more than just looking. There is a sense of a couple sitting down, laying all their sins out on the table, and starting the conversation of “Do we even try to fix this?”
Prisoner, on the other hand, comes two years after Adams’ divorce. The break is done and on the public record, time has passed, and Mandy Moore is now one of the brightest stars on TV. Thus, Prisoner feels more reflective and accepting. Adams is telling us what has happened and how he feels in its aftermath.
Adams said he wrote over 80 songs for Prisoner. I would love to hear the songs that were cut, or the original versions of the songs that did make it. I would imagine those he wrote two years to 18 months ago have a completely different feel than the final versions that were published. I bet there was more anger, hurt, and unedited emotion in those songs.
From that comes my only real disappointment in the album. It’s a little one-notey. Each song is of the same stage in Adams’ grief. And while that stage still has pain, it’s not the searing pain of the earliest days in a breakup. There are very few moments of anger. In fact, the cruelest line I can find on the album comes on my favorite song, “Outbound Train” when he sings
Swear I wasn’t lonely when I met your girl
I was just so bored, I was so bored…
When it comes to sick, breakup burns put to wax, that ranks pretty low.
He’s sad, he’s lonely, but the pain feels weathered and familiar rather than fresh and raw, and there are also no glimmers of hope that he and his lost love can repair things.
That one quibble aside, I still love listening to the album. As I said, some of the songs are profoundly pretty. It’s a classic grower, that keeps burrowing into your head a little more on each listen. There isn’t a song as great as “Brilliant Disguise” on it, but there’s also not a single song I skip past where Tunnel has several I have no interest in listening to.
In addition to Tunnel of Love, I keep thinking of two other great breakup albums, both of which just happen to be in my top 20 albums ever: Frightened Rabbit’s The Midnight Organ Fight and the War on Drugs’ Lost In The Dream.
Midnight is all piss and anger and sticking your finger in the wound to make sure you still feel the pain. Lost in the Dream feels like the sigh when you’re just rising out of that stage, coming to terms with the pain and loss, and beginning to realize that you need to find a path out of it.
Prisoner is another step down that path. The pain isn’t completely gone, but it has eased. And the dominant emotion is of being lonely rather than devastated.
A near perfect – but deeply depressing – soundtrack to the end of a relationship would begin with Tunnel of Love, careen into The Midnight Organ Fight, stumble through Lost in the Dream, and finally resolve in Prisoner.
Rating Ryan Adams albums is always difficult, partially because of the quantity of his output over the years, partially because he shifts sounds so often, partially because of the expectations of his talent. I don’t know that Prisoner is his best album. But I think it is an honest and accurate representation of the artist he has become: one of our finest chroniclers of love and loss.
- Holy Springsteen-esque title! ↩