The best anyone can want for (and from) Ryan Adams these days is consistency. And he finds it here – perhaps ironically – when contemplating the recent upheaval of a failed marriage. Prisoner, arriving nearly two decades later, is the flip-side, in some ways, to debut solo album Heartbreaker. You can point to other records in his career, or moments on other records, Doomsday could have sat happily on either Love Is Hell or Rock n Roll (except for the fact that it’s, well, not very rock’n’roll) but what is most impressive about Prisoner is the ordering of it as an album. Where so many Ryan Adams albums appear to have arrived as the result of marathon recording sessions – loaded up and then just hanging around on the shelf to wait for a release date – Prisoner feels like an album he meant, first and foremost, to write. And then to record. And then to release. You know – the old-fashioned album-way. Which shouldn’t seem so weird, for Adams is most definitely an album-artist.
Haunted House could have come from Springsteen’s pen, the wheeze of harmonica that frames-up the title track has him retracing his Smiths obsession, Shiver and Shade is the lumbering ole country song cast anew by a plaintive Ryan Adams vocal that we’ve come to expect at least two or three times per album – again this one has a slight trace of Springsteen to it, perhaps in the subdued, subverted train rhythm. It’s more honest and far less creepy than I’m On Fire but it still echoes the musical tone. That’s an observation by the way, not a complaint. All I’m trying to say is those familiar influences, antecedents and preoccupations are all there, all – still – obvious. From Paul Westerberg to Neil Young (the looping, loping, lovely acoustic guitar drive of To Be Without You might have been found from any of the lesser Harvest Moon-copy albums Ol’ Neil dropped like breadcrumbs across the late 90s and into the early 00s…the hungry crew of burgeoning alt-country troubadours gobbled them up of course). From guitar chords with smoothed corners fashioned over the jagged shards of indie stalwarts – Replacements, Smiths – (Anything I Say To You Now) through to the little reminders that Adams is country-crooner one minute, power-balladeer the next. He’s at his best – and so Prisoner is at its best – when he somehow manages to toggle between the two. As is the case here on at least half the album, its fantastic opening and closing cuts and a flawless “side two” in fact.
Also, there’s nothing to cut – not this time. Where previous great Ryan Adams albums had to be sliced in two, or should have been sliced in two this is just 12 songs across 42 minutes. That’s a record-fan right there, knowing the right length and how to keep the strength in what he does. The maturing Ryan Adams hasn’t put a foot wrong, really, in the last half-decade – unless you weren’t really into the folly of his Taylor Swift covers. And even that, now, can be seen and heard as part of the process.
In Heartbreaker, Love Is Hell and Prisoner he’s created a set of albums to rival The Cure’s “Doom Trilogy”, to accompany and build on Neil Young’s mid-70s run of existential dread. What makes Adams in “Heartbreaker” mode so good is that there’s hope on display. If he can’t see it. He can sing it. He knows it’s just around the corner. That shining hope is what makes this record – and the two earlier ones that now, somehow, feel linked – so good, so strong, so real. So true.