I think it was this past March when I decided once and for all that I was finally over Ryan Adams. It was after seeing him play at South By Southwest, the first show of his I’d seen in more than a decade and one where I went in expecting an emotional experience. But it really wasn’t. I mean, it was fine — and that’s all, just fine. Yeah, there were a few tug-at-the-heartstrings moments for us old-timers. But most of it felt like a lunch date with a long-ago ex where I had to finally admit that my fond old memories were nothing more than that, memories, and so far in the past that they just weren’t relevant anymore.
The whole experience seemed like a signal that Ryan really had moved on, and I should do the same. That feeling deepened a few months later when Ryan was in the papers excitedly describing his upcoming album as an unholy cross between AC/DC, ELO, BTO, The Smiths and Bruces Hornsby and Springsteen, which sounded like it would be another record along the lines of 2014’s stillborn Ryan Adams (an album I found to be a true test of faith). Then I heard its first song, “Do You Still Love Me,” which gave no cause for optimism. So I had zero expectations when an advance copy of Prisoner came my way a few weeks ago. My plan was to give the album just enough of a listen to dismiss it well in advance of the Feb. 17 release date, chalk it up as one more to ignore and get on with my life.
…somehow, against all odds, Prisoner is actually really, really good. Not just good but great, the best album Ryan has managed in well over a decade. I’ve been binging on it for weeks now, too, and it’s holding up. All of which makes for a turn of events that I find, well, shocking. It’s not that I thought Ryan no longer had greatness in him — his 2014 one-off single “Jacksonville” still stands as frustrating proof that he has all along — but that I had resigned myself to the fact that he’d never do another album that rang my bell the way he did with those old Whiskeytown records I wrote about in “Losering.”
Ryan being Ryan and me being me, it should come as no surprise that I have a minor quibble or two. Regrettably, the funereal “Do You Still Love Me” remains in the album’s pole position as track number one (although that does make it easy to skip — bonus!). And man, do I still wish he’d give the ’80s-sounding reverb a rest and put that voice God gave him all the way out front more often, dry and unadorned. But that aside, Prisoner is fantastic and evokes a vibe similar to Ryan’s dark 2003-2004 masterpiece Love Is Hell.
Love Is Hell emerged from some profoundly heavy real-life trauma, including the 2002 cancer death of Ryan’s girlfriend Carrie Hamilton. Similarly, the end of Ryan’s marriage to Mandy Moore casts a long and despairing shadow over Prisoner — and the context makes all the sense in the world. I initially found Ryan Adams to be a turnoff because of its musical blankness, but that actually proved to be a good sonic fit for what we now know about Ryan’s emotional state when it was being made (Ryan and Mandy reportedly separated some time before their split was announced a few months after the release of Ryan Adams). In retrospect, 2011’s Ashes & Fire now sounds like contentment with a slight tinge of complacency, leading to Ryan Adams’ depiction of scenes from a dying marriage, with Ryan coming around to the realization that he’d been going numb over time without even realizing it. His subsequent Taylor Swift 1989 tribute felt like a wallow in the depression of it all; and now Prisoner is the equivalent of pulling a scab off and letting the wound underneath air out. From “Broken Anyway”:
It was broken it was fake
I just close my eyes and shake
Last chance before it slips away
Throw it all away
Can’t go back again, what was whatever it became?
Whatever we were, we’ll still be together in some ways.
It’s hard truth and it hurts, but it feels like action borne of clarity and focus. Ryan sounds more like himself (or the person this listener imagines him to be, anyway) than he has in years. The album’s overall tone is subdued but with a few interludes of release and even catharsis, like the thunderous dive-bombing guitar solo that ends the album-closing “We Disappear” — which dissolves into the sound of faint laughter, supposedly from Mandy Moore herself. “We Disappear” seems like an acknowledgement that it isn’t either individual who is disappearing, but the life they had together.
Was I wrong, am I still?
Nobody gets it
And nobody ever will
You deserve a future and you know I’ll never change
We disappear and we fade away.
I think my favorite part of Prisoner falls right in the middle, tracks five and six, starting with “Shiver and Shake” — which has a quietly murmuring, drive-all-night momentum similar to Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. hit “I’m on Fire.” Ryan’s narrator imagines seeing his love with someone else, “laughing like you never even knew I was alive.” And he sounds shocked, not so much at the pain as the realization that he’s still capable of feeling this much pain. Oh, so this is what that feels like… “Shiver and Shake” fades into “To Be Without You,” spare and stoic and graceful, with lyrics that feel like a chunk of his heart carved out and set to music.
Everything you lose will always come find its way out
Every night is lonesome and is longer than before
Nothing really matters anymore…
He sounds utterly bereft yet also matter-of-fact about accepting his lot, seemingly believing it’s what he deserves — and it crushes me every single time I hear it. I just want to give the poor guy a hug and a mug of hot chocolate. Damn, Ryan. Come home sometime and the cocoa’s on me.
I really hate to say this, because it’s not a burden I would wish on anyone. But… Ryan really does seem to be at his best when he’s most forlorn. That is emphatically the case for Prisoner, an album I still can’t quite believe exists — one with real emotional stakes, that really does feel like life or death. I’m blown away.
And just like that, I’m back in love.