‘Prisoner’ and Ryan Adams’ 4-Year Breakup Cycle
The new album ‘Prisoner’ has been labeled Ryan Adams’ “breakup record” following a high-profile divorce to singer/actress Mandy Moore. If true, this could be a defining moment for a songwriter who’s perpetually in a state of disrepair. Ryan Adams is the definitive break-up artist, the saddest sack on the songwriting block and a recording artist who’d already released albums with titles like ‘Heartbreaker’ and ‘Love Is Hell’ (not to mention scores of harrowing breakup songs with ominous titles like Why Do They Leave, Harder Now That It’s Over, How Do You Keep Love Alive, The Sun Also Sets, I Taught Myself How To Grow Old, and the absolute king of romantic futility, I Love You But I Don’t Know What to Say). Lookup the word “wheelhouse” in the dictionary and you may find the cover of this new album. The documentation of such an experience most directly and positively… is his milieu.
First the good news, while ‘Prisoner’ isn’t a career-defining artistic statement, it does find Ryan Adams at the top of his game. The new album features some of the sharpest songwriting of his career, also his most consistent and essential collection of songs since that revered freshman release ‘Heartbreaker’. The lyrics are concise, evocative and malleable, offering up hard-fought wisdom and deep-seated honesty. But it turns out that ‘Prisoner’ is not actually his “break-up album”, as that would be his self-titled 2014 LP ‘Ryan Adams’. While he only filed for divorce in Jan 2015, he lists the date of separation in that public document as Aug. 4, 2014 – which was roughly a month before the eponymous album came out… and who knows how much earlier he’d come to grips with the dissolution. ‘Ryan Adams’, or ‘ST’ (“Self-Titled” as it’s become known) was most certainly written within that emotional climate and now having ‘Prisoner’ to bookend the years, can we see how specific and autobiographical that self-titled affair was. Also, in between ‘ST’ and 60 of the songs he wrote for what would become ‘Prisoner’, he released another 25 newly recorded songs across 8 7” singles… plus a full album of originally orchestrated covers from Taylor Swift’s own breakup album ‘1989’. Which means (with astounding intimacy and clarity) Ryan Adams has now spent a 3 or 4-year song-cycle charting the 7 stages of his post-breakup grief.
Wavering between anger and a surreal sense of disconnect (maybe disbelief), ‘ST’ is the album where he’s first reading the tea leaves and coming to terms with a doleful, most dire reality. The breakup described on ‘ST’ is cold and distant, almost journalistic in its candor as a sneaking suspicion comes into focus. That album charts this inflection point with about 5 songs that take the metaphor of fire, once a stand-in for passion, and now depict it as something more like a destructive force that consumes all available oxygen with force and totality. In “Am I Safe” he sings “Every day my heart sinks like a stone, Carries me away into the undertow | At the bottom there’s no air, There’s no sound or light.” Within the chorus refrain he fully commits what was once unthinkable and unconscious knowledge: “I just don’t love you anymore, I just want to sit here and watch it burn”, a sentiment equally intoned through the chorus of ‘Trouble’: “I know everything here is gonna burn”. “Wrecking Ball” is equally adept expressing this now foregone conclusion that there’s “Not much left in the tank, Somehow this thing still drives | Like it forgot what it needed but somehow still survives”. What becomes ‘Prisoner’ is writ large on the wall throughout ‘ST’. In the song “Feels Like Fire” he melodically sings “You will always be the hardest thing I ever will let go” and later in “Tired of Giving Up”, “I’m tired of giving up, and I’m tired of fighting, I don’t understand at all, And I’m tired trying to hide it.” Even the song titles on ‘ST’ push their individual epiphanies to the forefront as he comes to terms: from “Trouble” to “Am I Safe”, “Stay With Me” to “Tired of Giving Up”… the album even ends with a song titled “Let go”. So ‘ST’ is the sick love album, the set of songs that still regards the presence of two people within a room, and by time we get to ‘Prisoner’, there’s nobody else in the room. There’s no “we”, just a lone “I” licking his wounds and taking stock of the fallout. Which isn’t to say it’s as big a downer as ‘ST’. The new album is lucid and contemplative, occasionally fearful, often fragile, but positively positioned, like an affirmation. No bleary-eyed midnight calling, on ‘Prisoner’ he has perspective and focus on the new day rising.
Throughout the recent press junket, Ryan Adams has been assuring his interviewers that ‘Prisoner’ is something that’s sure to be misunderstood. Let’s not be coy, yes the album is about divorce, his divorce specifically. And yes the tone is mournful. But he’s cautioned, “it has nothing to do at all with the plot people assume the record is about…” Unpacking that a bit further: “This record is me trying to give myself a break but romantically say that attachment to permanence is an illusion” The record came out of his will to remain open-hearted, enough to risk a new heartbreak. By time we get to ‘Prisoner’, he’s come through the other side and has channeled his pain for catharsis. And because this is such familiar ground for him, the individual songs fit well within his catalog.
“To Be Without You” is one of those classic Ryan Adams songs that flows so well and effortlessly it seems like it’s always existed, just waiting up there in style heaven for Ryan to pluck it from the ether and pull it down (BTW, thank you ‘Wonder Boys’). It’s a rhythmic ballad that unfolds with style and grace. “Everything was new and colorful, It’s gotten darker, Every day’s a lesson things were brighter before… I feel empty, I feel tired, I feel worn… And nothing really matters anymore” After beating himself up for so long, scraping the bottom for answers that just won’t come, he comes through with an unsatisfying but most definitive truth: “Nothing left to say or really even wonder, We are like a book and every page is torn”
“Shiver and Shake” is the album’s most raw of ballads, inhabiting the time where the divorce becomes final: “I’ve been waiting here like a dog at the door, You used to throw me scraps, you don’t do it anymore, I miss your loving touch, miss your embrace, But if I wait here any longer I’m gonna fade away” That said, it’s “Broken Anyway” that best embodies the meaning of ‘Prisoner’. Adams described the song itself saying it lives within those last couple of seconds before a proverbial car crash, the type of crash that ensures the car can never be driven again. So this is couple’s last chance to have any discussion, but instead of hitting the brakes they lean into the crash. Because they realize the car is already totaled, and this fatalistic acceptance of the crash, he’s said, is how people free themselves when something’s dysfunctional. Elegant and concise, “The problem is what we wanna say, What we wanna say would just blow us both away… Everything we were is going down an endless drain” The chorus becomes an elegy of sorts, expressing his struggle to find affirmation or comfort: “It was broken anyway. It was broken, it was fake… and we don’t know what it meant”
Finally we get the album closer “We Disappear”, the most revealing song on the album. “Was I alone, am I still, Nobody gets in, nobody ever will… You deserve a future and you know I’ll never change“, this is the lyric he sings as sacrament. Adams has described the song as Ryan explaining to himself what he was doing, and the flaws he had in expectation… he’s explaining himself to this guy, a 70 or 80 year-old man raking leaves in the front yard where the leaves are parts of his personality he hadn’t come to terms with. So while pondering a brighter future, he concedes that he’s the greatest threat to that future, and he’s speaking to his ex but he’s also addressing himself. And with that he ends one cycle (both ‘Prisoner’s song cycle and a relationship cycle) with eager anticipation for the next. For all the thematic and stylistic connections this album has to Bruce Springsteen, this might be where ‘Prisoner’ connects to The Boss best as its spiritual forbearer, who in the song “Atlantic City” coined an ever-living optimism with the couplet “Everything dies, baby that’s a fact… But maybe everything that dies – someday comes back”.
On a recent WTF podcast with Marc Maron, Ryan was describing the days where he wrote his original masterpiece, ‘Heartbreaker’. He describes how he went broke in NYC and with his tail between his legs, had to move back to North Carolina. There, he recounts days just drinking and communing with music. He paints the picture: “You’re by yourself in the house and your liberal tears go down your face, you’re like “wow this song is killing me and raising me up from the dead at the same time!”” He cites Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me" as a standard bearer for the experience, but with ‘Prisoner’ Ryan Adams has released another batch of songs that’ll do just that. It’s a slow-burner of an album, and it will both kill you and raise you up from the dead at the same time.