Breakup albums. Songs dedicated to loves long lost have been apart of musical expression ever since people used goat intestines for guitar strings (look it up), but it takes a considerable amount of skill and emotional focus to dedicate an entire record to said lost love. Breakup albums can become undisputed masterpieces if executed correctly, from Bob Dylan's Blood On The Tracks
to Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill
, but it's also incredibly easy to fall into clich and self-loathing territory by the eighth song in a row about how much your ex screwed you over. It's a fine line to tread, and takes an artist of considerable skill and emotional control to pull off making great art out of great pain.
Though his back catalog is pretty well filled with sad love songs, Ryan Adams
left fans a little puzzled, if not concerned, after his divorce from Mandy Moore back in 2015. Initially, it seemed that he retreated into the studio to vent his feelings and frustrations, meaning new original music was surely on the way. Instead, the singer-songwriter emerged with a full cover album of Taylor Swift's 1989
, a well-meaning but ultimately forgetful tribute to the queen of teenage breakup anthems. Thankfully, it seems that the covers album was only a warm-up act to get the angsty divorce jitters out of his system, as Adams has now released Prisoner
, the real testament to his faded love and quite possibly his most focused and emotionally potent album in recent memory.
Without even delving into the music and lyrics, the song titles alone prove Adams' follow-up to his 2014 self-titled album is unmistakably a breakup album. Consequently, the lyrics certainly get heavy, disparaged, even depressing at times, but Adams buoys some of the dreariness with some beautifully crafted guitar work and instrumentation. Every song on Prisoner
is meticulously layered with bright, sprawling riffs and chords, harkening back to the days when guitar-driven rock songs dominated the album charts. The result is that mix of tender, introspective lyrics with nostalgic, pristinely produced instrumentation Adams has perfected over the years, like if Johnny Marr grew up in Memphis and listened to more Bruce Springsteen.
The album's opener, "Do You Still Love Me?" throws subtlety to the side and aims to pierce your emotional core with every jarring chord strike, while Adams painfully concedes that times have changed beyond recognition and repair for him and his former love. "Doomsday" is a clever, if not mildly cynical, spin on the "I'll love you 'till the end of time" gimmick, bluntly pointing out the fact that in reality, the apocalypse probably isn't all that romantic in the moment. Most of this album feels like a 80s classic rock mixtape, but "Anything I Say To You Now" and "Breakdown" particularly stand out as mid-tempo jams that would've fit nicely next to Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac on rock radio back in the day. While bombastic and all encompassing with the full band, Adams also manages to dial back for more delicate cuts like "Shiver and Shake" and "Tightrope," which allow the earnestness of his lyrics to linger over the minimal, reverberated instrumentation. It's in these softer tracks where you really feel Adams' loneliness, but also a bittersweet sense of hope for the future, and they really help the album flow and not feel too one-note. In fact, I wouldn't have minded hearing more of these ballad-type songs, because even before his divorce, Adams has proved he's at his best when he's a lone man strumming his guitar, heart on his sleeve.
Following the same alt-country sound as his previous album, Adams isn't reinventing the wheel on Prisoner
, but he certainly has perfected it. As good as 2014's Ryan Adams
was, it often times felt aimless and meandering, where as each track on Prisoner
is precise in structure and possess a sense of conviction and urgency we haven't heard from Adams in a while. You fully believe him when he begs to be freed from his own heartache on the album's title track, all the more impressive considering "I want you back, baby" is a song theme used by every artist under the sun.
The final product will likely bring back any Adams fans alienated by his Taylor Swift phase, and may even attract new, lovesick listeners in need of some good guitar riffs. It's hard to call any new release a classic from the get-go, but it's safe to say Adams has succeeded in turning pain into art and delivering an incredibly powerful yet tender divorce album. You feel the emotional weight along with him, but you can also feel a sense of hope emitting from the music, as if to say that even in the darkness, there's always a glimmering light of hope somewhere inside you. It's just a matter of taking the time to look for it.