People will be talking about how Ryan Adam’s Prisoner is a break-up album, and yes, it is, but there is nothing wrong with that. Adam’s heart is broken, and music is his expression, and his healing. Honest healing in not one dimensional, it has layers, and Adams explores these nuances of his soul in this twelve-song set. Like most break-up albums, there is sadness, but here there is more. He is reflective, he is candid, and he is accepting of the fact that not everything in life works out. Lyrically, the album hits all the right spots. But musically he plays it safe, and this may be one of album’s only drawbacks. Adams is not breaking any new ground, but sticking with the age old acoustic country-rock listeners have come heard time and time again. This style does fit the album’s melancholy mood, but shows Adams would rather stick with what he knows best.
Heartbreak is not a new topic for Adams- his acclaimed debut was titled Heartbreaker, after all. That was an astonishing seventeen years ago and since then he has been incredibly prolific, exploring diverse sounds throughout his alternative country and rock genres. His last album was his most surprising; his 2015 cover album of Taylor Swift’s 1989, pop songs re-imagined by Adams. However, it made sense he was attracted to this album, with Swift being another frequent writer of love gone wrong. With Prisoner, his first album of original songs since 2014, the heartache feels different. It weighs a little heavier. Perhaps it is that he is older, or that seven years of his life was devoted to a relationship that no longer exists. Now in his 40’s, he has more life than ever to look back on and he shows no issue with baring his soul for his art.
As an artist and musician, everything about Adams is authentic. He penned all but two tracks on the album by himself and was the record’s sole producer. Always with his guitar, his voice does not require, or even entertain the idea of, the aid of auto tune. Every note of his voice becomes a new emotion, straight from his heart. Additionally, the cover art was painted by Adams, an image he had originally had up in 2009 at an auction in New York. Looking at the artwork, you see complex emotions in the face of this sad figure. The blurry art style resonates with Adam’s chaotic, unclear feelings that pull him in different directions.
Lead single and opening track “Do You Still Love Me” sets the tone with desperation and confusion. It starts sounding gospel, before the clashing of rock n’ roll sounds kicks in and Adam’s cries “I’ve been thinkin’ about you baby/ you’ve been on my mind”. The album begins looking through his memories and thoughts. After the breakup he has been left shaken with little regard for anyone else. He is the center of attention as he promises, “I will count the days”. Evidently, time has been moving dreadfully slow in the aftermath of the split, and that it is all he can focus on. The track’s title implies he still has great love for his lost love, wondering if she feels the same. The song’s music video shows Adams performing the song in the studio and in front of a live audience, while periodically cutting back to him sitting alone in a stadium. This shows that it is his music that still brings him together with people, and when the song is over he is alone again.
In the second single, “To Be Without You,” he muses about the struggles of single life. Lyrics such as “It’s so hard not to call you” and, “Nothing matters anymore” emphasize how not used to living solo he is. He cannot resist staying away from his ex, and without her he doesn’t see the point to anything. Musically this is one of the more engaging songs on the record. It has a hypnotic, country-tinged rhythm that puts the listener in a quiet headspace. It is only when he utters, “Used to feel so angry and now I only feel humble” that he shows any hint of moving on. He shows that anger is only one phase of breaking up, and that it does not last forever. Some of these lyrics may come across as cliché, but they’re from the heart.
Some other songs verge on becoming boring. This album is certainly for fans who have been with Adams for years, those who know his music and career in and out. They will definitely find the album a comfortable return. But people who have never heard Ryan Adam’s music may be bored towards the end of the album. After just one listen the steady themes and style make the songs interchangeable. The casual listener might get to track ten and find Adam’s repeated sorrows have become whiny.
The album has a strong closer, though, with the haunting ‘We Disappear’. It shows Adams finally finding acceptance, which is the final and most important stage of a major breakup. The album does not dwell on one aspect of a break up, but shows the cycle of emotions one goes through and you can see this progression if you pay attention to all the lyrics. In this song, he knows it is better that they stay apart because she deserves better. This is one of the most mature, selfless moments on the record.
As far as break up albums go, Prisoner isn’t anything new. It’s not as angry as Jagged Little Pill, as epic as 21 or as deep as Vulnicura, but it serves its purpose as Adam’s musical therapy. It is a decent alt-rock album with personal lyrics, fitting for a contemplative drive through the countryside with the windows rolled down. Those experiencing heartbreak will of course find it more rewarding, as many people will very much relate to the sentiment of being a prisoner to a past love.
Photo credit: pitchfork.com
Lyrics credit: azlyrics.com