not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
I’ve seen Ryan Adams play Red Rocks twice: once in 2015, and once in 2016. The first concert was excellent, but cut short by inclement weather, as happens to a lot of outdoor summer shows in Colorado (sometimes I think the romance that’s grown around Red Rocks has a lot to do with the constant threat that you will have paid $60 for half a concert). Adams made the best of it, played “Where the Stars Go Blue” in conditions where the venue staff and his management were probably using everything short of a vaudeville hook to get him off the stage, and then he told us that was all and apologized, and really the rain was coming down too hard at that point for anyone to complain.
But when he came the next year, I think he remembered what had happened the last time, or maybe he just didn’t want to get off the stage because it was one of the last dates on his tour (he improvised a love song to his band, The Shining, halfway through, and seemed introspective and sentimental in that way people get when they know something is ending) (though I may also be underestimating the extent to which Ryan Adams is introspective and sentimental in everyday life). But whatever the reason, he just kept playing and playing and playing. “We’re gonna keep playing! I’ve got songs for days!” he shouted at one point. “I’ve written hundreds of the damn things!” It was easily the best concert I went to that year, and one of the best I’ve ever seen. And then, about two-thirds of the way through, Adams played us a song that hadn’t come out yet, “but we’re thinking about putting it on my next album.”
That song, “Do You Still Love Me?” brought the damn house down. I remember thinking, “if he hasn’t even decided whether that song belongs on the album or not, how good are the rest of the songs he’s got lined up?”
Well, now that the album has been released, and “Do You Still Love Me” was not just on it, but the lead single and the first song, we’ve got an answer: It’s pretty goddamn great, easily his best since Cold Roses, and even better than that album in some ways.
Adams wrote these songs following his divorce from pop singer Mandy Moore, and probably the easiest, quickest, laziest take you could give on Prisoner is that his songwriting seems to improve when he’s writing about heartbreak. But that wouldn’t make it a wrong one, not entirely. It seems like every Ryan Adams fan who has written on the internet generally agrees that the two albums Adams made during his marriage to Moore, Ashes & Fire and the self-titled Ryan Adams, are minor efforts, however tuneful. This last take isn’t entirely correct—lots of Adams’s albums take time to grow on the listener (a phenomenon he brought up in this timeless interview with Steven Hyden), and upon returning to his last two non-cover LPs, I found that the songs had improved with age and without the expectation any new release brings, and “Rocks” from Ashes and Fire might actually be one of my favorite Adams songs now. So Prisoner isn’t a step up so much as a continuation of excellent albums from Adams, who continues to mine the sound he started exploring on Love is Hell in new and interesting ways.
But it’s also true that Prisoner has an immediacy that those other albums don’t, that the organ and crashing guitar in “Do You Still Love Me?” caused my ears to perk up on the first listen in a way that “Gimme Something Good” didn’t for several months, that the first five songs on the album get more beauty and emotion out of fifteen minutes than the first five songs on Love is Hell managed to wring out of twenty-two. Everything there is to love about the Adams of that album and the self-titled album and 1989 is here, but it’s tighter, more focused and developed.
Those first five songs continue to use the sonic palate Adams stuck to on the Swift covers, and you get the feeling that playing those songs in that Springsteen-by-way-of-The-Smiths style allowed him and The Shining to really get a grasp on what they needed in each song to really make it pop. Producer Don Was (who I will always remember as the producer of the equally gorgeous and downbeat Barenaked Ladies album Maroon) helped Adams put in tons of smaller details that enhance the experience, which reaches its peak in the closer, “We Disappear,” in which Adams and the band seem to fade out in a landscape of drum machines and guitars that somehow sound soaring and constrained all at once.
There’s familiar touches everywhere here: “To Be Without You,” the first song that brings some country inflections back into the album, feels almost like an alternate version of the Cold Roses track “When Will You Come Back Home?” and the start-stop percussion section of “Breakdown” brings to mind “Kim” off his last record. But each song has been stretched into its own shape, and anyway half the fun of listening to Adams is recognizing the motifs and structures to which he frequently returns.
When I first started listening to Adams (the first record of his I bought was Rock N Roll—I know, I know), I felt like he didn’t know how to finish his songs: they often seemed to have an interesting melody that wasn’t really developed. They often didn’t seem to have a proper ending, preferring to just repeat the hook and gradually fade out. A lot of his songs don’t contain a bridge, and while there are plenty of bands that largely eschew bridges—Guided By Voices being the best example—it’s worth pointing out that most Guided By Voices are less than three minutes long, while the average Ryan Adams song is well north of four. One of the joys of his gradual maturity is seeing him create songs that don’t dwell on the same idea, but develop it out and condense it into something more powerful, and bring everything to a close at the perfect moment. It’s fitting that an album which concerns itself so much with endings should have such a good sense of them.