Ryan Adams: Prisoner

Ryan Reed on March 2, 2017

It’s hard not to feel guilty listening to Ryan Adams’ masterful 16th LP. What kind of monster takes such pleasure from a man’s blatant misery? But pain births great art, and Prisoner is just that. The album was borne from the singer-songwriter’s high-profile divorce, and that context is inextricable from the songs, which hammer on your heart with the blunt force of a sledgehammer. Adams, voice ragged, moans about living in a “Haunted House,” teetering toward a “Breakdown” and eyeing a romantic “Doomsday.” Throughout, he sings with unfiltered angst—slightly slurred, clearly distraught—as if he booked a recording session and therapy session simultaneously. In one particularly bleak moment, backed by a shimmering electric-guitar progression, he seeks comfort from the phantom of his ex-wife: “I reach out for your hand, but I know it isn’t there,” he croons. “I pick up my phone, and I shiver and stare.”

Prisoner, Adams’ first album since a 2015 re-imagining of Taylor Swift’s 1989, retains the classic-rock and alt-country focus of his previous work, but is embellished with thrilling sonic twists at every turn: the wailing saxophone on “Tightrope,” the atmospheric wah-wah at the climax of “Broken Anyway,” the choral synth breezes of “Shiver and Shake.” These may be his most soul-crushing songs, but they’re crafted for catharsis. “We disappear, and we fade away,” Adams quivers during the set’s fragile finale, as a woman’s distant laughter and a phased-out guitar solo echo into oblivion. Prisoner is the most personal of projects, but its emotions are universal.

Artist: Ryan Adams
Album: Prisoner
Label: Pax-Am/Blue Note