Ryan Adams withholds nothing on ‘Prisoner’

By Lucy Kiefert, Round Table entertainment editor

Any artist with as lengthy of a musical history of raw, mostly stripped-down material as Ryan Adams may be expected to flounder when it comes to producing relevant music in today’s climate of showy, glamorous performance art. That only makes it twice as sweet when these artists do just the opposite.

Ryan Adams’ newest album, “Prisoner”, was released in full on Feb. 17 and according to the artist himself, it is his most important album to date. The process of completing the record involved Adams having to choose from up to eighty songs that would perfectly chronicle the divorce from his former wife, Mandy Moore. Although Adams urged his fans and listeners to pick up a physical copy of “Prisoner” so they could “feel it exist,” the album is available for digital purchase as well as endless streaming.

From the moment the album begins, riding high on the notes of an organ, the listener knows that they are in store for a soul-bearing tune delivered in the classic style of Ryan Adams. “Do You Still Love Me?” is the perfect song to start “Prisoner”, some of its most notable qualities consisting of staccato guitar strums to break up the verses, pounding drum hits and raspy vocals carrying fluidly over the track. It is the kind of song that every record should kick off with, the perfect balance of suspense and delivery evident from the first electric strike of the guitar. “Another year will pass / I will count the days” is one lyric of many that prove “Do You Still Love Me?” to be the ideal musical plea for reconcile and the most appropriate song to start Adams’ masterpiece.

In contrast to the opening tune, though, the rest of the tracklist seems to abide more closely to the soft-spoken, acoustic technique that Adams has mastered, none of them touching the anthem-like quality of “Do You Still Love Me?” but beautifully unique in their own ways.

Track one gradually finishes before shifting to track two, which holds the responsibility of donning the same name as the album. Coming down from the high of the one preceding it, I was slightly disappointed by this song, but I also recognized it to be in Adams’ honed style, making it easy to sway along to. “Prisoner” came off as pleasant yet undynamic but interesting in its lyric choice, consisting of a chorus that plainly states, “I am a criminal / I am a prisoner.”

Next comes “Doomsday” and “Haunted House”, also slow and melancholy while still possessing character. “Doomsday” adds a twinge of blues to the record, sprinkled with ramblings on the harmonica layered behind Adams’ soft vocals that roll over words of distress, the hook included: “My love / We can do better than this.”

In contrast, “Haunted House” executes a fittingly dark, folky take on the building mentioned in its name, said house featuring “a painting on the wall,” “cracks in the window” and “the lattice from 1924” that seem to only remind Adams of how tragic life can be. “I don’t wanna live in this haunted house / anymore,” he says, seamlessly relating the dilapidated structure he speaks of to the lonely, wandering pieces living inside of everyone – pieces they wish they could abandon, but can never seem to dispose of.

Most pleasing to me were tracks such as “Shiver and Shake” and “Breakdown”, consisting of haunting yet touching melodies accompanied by simple yet strong wording. “Shiver and Shake” starts out sounding not far from what would accompany the scene of a rolling tide touching the shore, or the sight of a sunset through a car windshield. “Shiver and Shake” is, at first, merely depressing but after some listening, it becomes somehow intoxicating due to this sheer fact. The chorus speaks for itself and can definitely attest to that sad yet sweet feeling: “I miss you so much / I shiver and I shake.” Track seven, “Anything I Say To You Now”, is much of the same in this regard, both of them so heart-wrenching that they’re almost addictive.

“Breakdown” draws from that same place of sorrow but does not put any added effort into sugarcoating it. After soft verses, Adams launches into a chorus with a direct claim many can relate to: “Feel like I’m headed for a breakdown.”

While it may not initially stand out during the first listen-through of the album, “Breakdown” is arguably the most candid and simplified counterpart of “Prisoner”, what with lines such as “Oh, my soul is black as coal” and “Did I lose my mind?” alongside an overwhelmingly anxious tone. It stands as a frantic, fervent expression of what Adams is feeling in that moment, which is something all the tracks accomplish, but in ways that are seemingly less literal and upfront.

The rest of “Prisoner” is much like that, showcasing personal expressions of misery that are not whiny, only honest. Overall, that is what Adams is: honest, and insistently so. To bare his heart so readily, so freely and so beautifully is already a technique continually present in his material.

Adams seems to know no other way, and really, to expect anything else of him – anything past what he already gives (which is all of himself) – is a request that would be impossible to have fulfilled. “Prisoner” is supposedly everything that Ryan Adams could have possibly said about his divorce and the hardship it caused for him, and a ceaselessly emotive revelation of this time in his life.

One may still feel compelled to ask more of “Prisoner” after hearing it, but there would simply be nothing left to give them.