There’s a version of Ryan Adams’ 16th album, Prisoner, which uses an alternate sleeve. The standard-issue, naïve-style portrait is replaced by the image of an apple in the beginning stages of natural decay. Like a Caravaggio still life, the image is both beautiful and haunting – the shadow of sugar and its high-riding connotations, versus the inevitable onset of rot.
Prisoner itself can be described on very similarly terminal terms. Yes – perhaps unoriginally, it is in fact a break-up record. More distinctly however, it’s an album from the category that one can call truly merit-worthy. The ‘woe is me’ format is notoriously easily-accessed, such that some responses to it now violently contrast the expectant melancholy of the thing: from Father John Misty’s cynically infatuated I Love You, Honeybear to writer Nick Hornby’s semi-sincere assessment of cult fascination with musical biography in Juliet, Naked, the institution of breakup art is a well-trod path. Adam’s attempt along it is, frankly, heroic.
Prisoner comes as the successor to a full-length cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989, an album Adams described as “a joy [in] its own alternate universe”. Explaining his approach to his handling of her songs, Swift said: “they’re not cover songs in the commonly expected sense […] they’re re-imaginings of my songs”. In much the same way, Adams maturely handles the break-up album with a refreshing directness. Almost as if to emphasise this approach, Adams comes at the topic of his divorce with some very typical, old school images – haunted houses, outbound trains, tightropes etc. Elsewhere however, he’s incredibly frank: opener Do You Still Love Me? is, in title and content, explicitly insecure. A similar effect is achieved by the flushing motions and drain-destined ambitions of an ex-optimist in Broken Anyway; by the brutally honest assessment of solitariness in To Be Without You; by the acceptance of defeat in closer We Disappear. Lyrically, there is nothing particularly clever going on in these songs. There is however, a very tastefully handled and extremely accessible discussion about the new self, forced to emerge from the now redundant dualisms of, ‘us’ and ’them’.
I most enjoyed Prisoner for its musicality. Adams is a very competent songwriter, and his radio-friendly compositions can be catchy, warm and melodic. In places, he embraces more experimental textures – a do-or-die treatment of the mix during track one’s solo section; heavy phase effects on the verses of Breakdown; screeching, reverb-y horns in the album’s final thirty seconds. All in all, these are extremely solid compositions. Each could be confidently released as a single; each is the right length, superbly mixed, and gorgeously full. Adams’ sound is predominantly acoustic, but complimented by broad and brilliantly complimentary textures – jangle-y, Rickenbacker-style rhythms on Prisoner; a harmonica introduction straight out of the E Street Band songbook on Doomsday; heavy, dragging bass guitar on To Be Without You.
Do yourself a favour and listen to this record. It’s not going to be your favourite of the year, or all-time, or anything like that. But it’s not really supposed to be; it’s a snapshot from the songwriter’s life, and it stands for feelings that exist at a very particular point in time, making the listening experience really quite ephemeral. The guy can really write a tune though, and for such a robust execution of an age-old and easily lampooned formula, he deserves a very sincere round of applause.