When Ryan Adams released his hit cover version of Taylor Swift’s 1989 two years ago, some fans and critics guessed that the recently divorced singer-songwriter was working through his heartbreak by borrowing the words and melodies of one of modern pop’s best lovesick balladeers. But in retrospect, 1989 may have just been an extended rehearsal for Adams’ new album, Prisoner, on which he’s as bruised and exposed as he’s ever allowed himself to be on a record—and all without forgetting to write hooks. Not since Easy Tiger, 10 years ago, has Adams made a record this focused and consistently tuneful. Prisoner belongs on the shortlist with Heartbreaker and Whiskeytown’s Pneumonia as the LP to hand to newcomers to explain what makes Ryan Adams special.
Where 2011’s Ashes & Fire and 2014’s Ryan Adams suffered some from a heavier touch (and a paucity of memorable songs), Prisoner exhibits an ease that belies its rough origins. The record’s grandest and most aggressive track is its opener, the pointedly titled “Do You Still Love Me?,” which begins with churchy organ, short guitar stings, and Adams’ voice, and retains a start-stop structure even after the stings become riffs (and then ultimately a taut guitar solo that sounds like an homage to Joe Walsh in his James Gang days). But that’s really the most overtly ambitious song on an album that seems to take its cues more from Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel Of Love and scattered Smiths B-sides.
The title track, Prisoner’s second song, is more typical of the record as a whole, with its chiming guitar, compressed drum sound, and a vocal that falls halfway between angelic crooning and an idle mumble. And the next number, “Doomsday,” is even stronger, with a doleful harmonica fading into one of Adams’ most beguilingly winding melodic lines and evocative lyrics—taking an “I’ll love you to end of time” declaration to its darkly logical conclusion. Prisoner’s opening third—which includes song number four, the melancholy mid-tempo shuffle “Haunted House”—sports a bracing bluntness, as Adams describes a marriage dissolving in painful terms. It’s not just bitterness, jealousy, and emotional distance that are getting the singer down, but also an existential irritation at the thought of all the years put into this relationship being wasted.
At one point Prisoner was scheduled to come out in 2016, and for nearly three years now Adams has spoken about the music in the pipeline, which he’d described as some of the most effortlessly inspired work he’s ever done. He wasn’t exaggerating. It’s clear that Adams and producer Don Was have spent time fiddling with the arrangements and instrumentation of these songs, which are filled with winning additions like bongos, saxophone, or a pinging, echoing guitar line that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an early Bryan Adams album. In nothing else, this record is a pleasure to listen to, with little surprises on nearly every track.
But underlying all those tweaks is a confident, unfussy aesthetic. Picture a breezy soundtrack to an ’80s teen movie, but with all the songs written and sung by Tom Petty. There’s a thematic consistency to the lyrics too, which paint a picture of a man panicked by change as he settles into middle age. Mostly though, Adams seems possessed by the same spirit that gets into his pal Taylor Swift when she’s hurt. He sounds like he’s savoring how full of life his music is, no matter what it took to make it so. He hasn’t just turned misery into art; he’s turned it into joy.