The beauty of heartbreak is that, from it, creativity can blossom to express a variety of emotions and convey ideas that have been bottled up over months or years of yearning. In 2015, master singer-songwriter Ryan Adams announced his split and following divorce from actress Mandy Moore after six years of marriage. Taking a three-year break to recover from this tumultuous experience, Adams went back into the studio with a songbook of emotionally complex tunes that comprise “Prisoner,” Adams’ 16th studio effort and first full album of original music since his 2014 self-titled record.
While fans were greeted with various samples and b-sides over Adams’ social media accounts and through his self-produced seven-inch records, Adams unveiled the first single “Do You Still Love Me?” last December. The introduction by organ is nothing short of Adams-esque in nature, naturally followed by an increasingly vigorous power-chord progression. One is able to hear the ache in Adams’ lyrics as he questions his love regarding her lost affection. Or is it still lingering? Though simplistic in terms of lyrical content, it sets the melancholic tone of the rest of the record.
If you’re looking more for Adams’ folk roots that popularized him with his first record, “Heartbreaker,” you’ll be glad that he has packed heat on this latest record. “Doomsday,” with its Lynyrd Skynyrd references and delayed guitar loop, cements Adams as a modern Neil Young with an array of instrumentation that flows almost too perfectly. Additionally, the lyrics are tear-jerking and allow the listener to briefly glimpse into Adams’ emotional wreckage, “As the fire burns around us in the dark/One part is the world and one’s my heart.”
Folksy in nature is also “Tightrope,” a personal favorite that is as gripping as the song title suggests. Adams showcases his storytelling prowess as he weaves a tale of uneasiness while his character walks the thin line of satisfaction. The inclusion of the saxophone solo is the icing on the cake as it slow dances intricately with the framework of Adams’ story arc.
Heartbreak seems to be the central aura of “Prisoner” and with songs like “To Be Without You” and “Breakdown,” we begin to peel back the layers of an unstable genius’s psyche. The transition between the stages of grief toy with the heartstrings of the listener as Adams contemplates the notions of love, its fallout and exactly where to go after the dust settles. “We Disappear” is the ultimate nod to 80s Bruce Springsteen, with expressive vocals and an instrumental sway that paces itself evenly while never trying to outshine Adams’ subject material. The tune wraps the album in an almost cheerful way as we hear Adams laughing after coming to the realization that not all is lost and it is better to adhere to one’s personal brand, “Nobody gets in, nobody ever will/You deserve a future and you know I’ll never change.”
“Prisoner” proves to be Adams’ most prolific record in recent memory and washes away the façade of an experimental Adams, instead showing him bare to the roots. Though romance has withered throughout the record, Adams continues to blossom as the songwriter of our generation and deservedly so.