As any real Smiths fan will tell you, the B-side is a delicate thing. Once a convenient locale for sub-par, somehow less worthy compositions, its alternative, surreptitious use as a burial spot for hidden treasure (throughout the eighties particularly), has earned it prestige as a mystery space in music. Will the B-side charm me, or disappoint me? It’s only ever one or the other.
B-side compilations, then, have grown a reputation as being surprisingly good. Choice selections of my own would include Pixies’ Complete B-Sides, Pet Shop Boys’ Alternative, and of course, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine’s Starry Eyed and Bollock Naked.
Ryan Adams’ Prisoner B-Sides is the latest addition to this legacy of asides. It’s seventeen songs strong, sweetly textured and very nicely produced. It complements its parent record perfectly. It even introduces a few experimental flavours. Perhaps most significantly however, listeners won’t excavate any Handsome Devils here – these are B-sides in the more traditional sense.
As you might expect, the selection here is nearly-album-standard-but-not-quite. The Johnny Marr jangle outro of Stop Talking, and the urgent, post-punk minor chords of Let It Burn are highlights. Equally admirable, is the quality of Adams’ craft as a song-writer – the tunes are never really boring. End to end however, Prisoner B-Sides is, despite excellent musical performances from Adams, really rather forgettable. These are very obviously the weakest tracks from the album-proper’s sessions; without question, every one of Prisoner’s tracks out-draws these merry ‘others’. Occasionally, the compilation even strays into the objectively unwelcome – at 6:54, Too Tired to Cry is too damn long, and (for the time commitment it demands) largely uneventful. The songs also all suffer from issues that began plaguing the original LP by it’s closing, thirteenth track – repetitive, cliched lyrics. Lots of loneliness, depression, regret, tears – all really good stuff, objectively, just intimidatingly plentiful here.
Sonically, this batch of music is a butterfly-print of Prisoner. Literally nothing is different, and any one of these songs might have been written and/or recorded in the same take, session, evening or week as anything on the main album. If you want to know what that sounds like, start there and with my review of the record (hint: if you haven’t heard it yet, it’s really great!).
Notably (with fans in mind), pre-orders of Prisoner: End of the World Edition (a 7” vinyl-based megabox with all kinds of additional physical tat) come with access to an extra two B-sides – The Cold and Lookout. Both do as the rest did before them – pleasantly extend proceedings whilst offering little in the way of new ideas, musically and/or otherwise. This full, nineteen-track copy of Prisoner B-Sides, when appended to the original album, draws out the run-time from forty-two minutes to an epic one hour-fifty. Unredacted, this definitive workprint copy of the album is remarkably listenable still. That said, Prisoner B-Sides will probably only hold your hold your attention if you’re a true fan of the accompanying album. It’s too obviously subordinate to those recordings to stand up on its own; and if you’re not a major fan of that record, then you may find your interest waning slightly toward the end.
Put short, if you loved Prisoner like I did, Christmas has come early. If you didn’t, stick with the original thirteen songs – you’re not missing anything too different in style or ambition here… just length.