Always one for following his own muse, impulses and stylistic influences, Ryan Adams cuts a wide path through contemporary rock ’n’ roll. Not content to be the poster boy for alt-country he’s increasingly explored hardcore, 80s MOR, metal and pop music and now on Prisoner he continues the sound of his previous self-titled album and dives deep into documenting and analysing the breakup of his marriage to actress Mandy Moore.
There’s a fascinating narrative arc to the record, beginning with sarcasm and optimism (‘Do You Still Love Me?’) before crawling through the emotional landscape, exploring the deep scars of realisation, fear and the beginnings of reluctant acceptance. It’s the most direct and focused album he’s produced given the subject matter and he drapes it all in an 80s sheen – from the reverb-laden guitar shimmer, big drum sound and grand musical gestures. It ends up sounding like a composite of The Smiths, Foreigner, Big Star and Don Henley and as mad as that sounds – it works. Adams paints the fractured relationship as a ‘Tightrope’, a ‘Haunted House’, an ‘Outbound Train’ and a ‘Breakdown’ so there’s quite rightly little levity across the album, though a glimmer of hope and light emerge at its conclusion.
Heart-on-sleeve songwriting can easily become mawkish and saccharine but Adams has a well sharpened pen, production and musical nous that ensures all the stars are in alignment on Prisoner, one of his most fascinating albums to date.