“What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” Rob Gordon ponders in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. Though this is a seemingly unanswerable quandary where arguments could be made on both sides, it is indisputable that we love to listen to songs about breakups and heartbreak. As a songwriter there aren’t many that can touch that part of us better than Ryan Adams. Where 2014’s self-titled album eloquently touched upon the dying throws of his marriage to Mandy Moore, Prisoner is an album about looking around at the rubble left after their divorce.
While this type of heartbreak album isn’t new ground for Ryan Adams, the difference between Prisoner and his 2000 debut solo album Heartbreaker or 2004’s Love Is Hell, is more mature, self-aware lyrics that also hold a deeper sense of loss. On “Shiver and Shake” Adams sings, “I close my eyes I see you with some guy/laughing like you never knew I was alive” before lamenting “I miss you so much, I shiver and I shake”. Whereas on “We Disappear”, Adam’s admits “Nobody gets in, nobody ever will/You deserve a future and you know I’ll never change”. This type of pointed and self-aware lyrics is present in every song on Prisoner and is where Adams has always excelled.
The first single and first track on the album “Do You Still Love Me” starts the album off feeling like 80’s album-oriented rock and the listener may or may not be disappointed that the rest of the album doesn’t really follow suit. Though certain songs may use some of the 80’s era key sounds and “Outbound Train” does a great job imitating some of Bruce Springsteen’s greatest ballads, most of the songs on Prisoner feel like they could be on any Ryan Adams album. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Many fans of Ryan Adams prefer that sound and are not as accepting of albums that deviate that sound like 2003’s Rock N’ Roll.
Ultimately, Prisoner doesn’t really break any molds within Adams’ discography stylistically, but lyrically it is some of his most personal and heartbreaking lyrics to date. It finds Adams at his most vulnerable, and while we should feel bad about the situation that gave birth to this album, it is nonetheless where Adams tends to shine. It may be that having to sing these songs over and over again will provide some catharsis for him and in turn many will find solace in his words as many listeners will be able to relate to these songs. Prisoner is an album full of sadness but is also a thing of beauty.