More so than his alt-country covers of zeitgeisty non- country albums or his arbitrary forays into arena rock and heavy metal wish- fulfilment, what Ryan Adams truly excels at is documenting and dissecting failed relationships. With ‘Prisoner’, the 42-year-old singer-songwriter is (conservatively speaking) on his third such album dedicated to doing just that, this time picking over the bones of his six-year marriage to actress Mandy Moore, which ended in 2015.
Fortunately – both for us and, in a more cathartic sense, Adams himself – the passage of time between this album and 2004’s ‘Love Is Hell’, or even his 2000 solo debut ‘Heartbreaker’, hasn’t dulled his gift for creating art out of pain. ‘Prisoner’ isn’t quite up to the career-best standards of its predecessors, but it’s a remarkably focused and effective successor nonetheless.
Opener ‘Do You Still Love Me?’ sets the tone, if not quite the sound, for much of what follows, with a disconsolate Adams pleading, “Is my heart blind and our love so strange?” over a backing track equidistant between Whitesnake’s ‘Here I Go Again’ and The Eagles’ ‘Victim Of Love’. As ’80s power-ballad pastiches go, it’s expertly done, though the rest of the album takes its cues from more tasteful, less bombastic sources, namely ‘Tunnel Of Love’-era Bruce Springsteen (see the brilliant – and devastating – ‘Haunted House’) and Bruce Hornsby(the widescreen soft rock of ‘Anything I Say To You Now’).
Adams’ pen doesn’t hold back on the heartache – “I see you with some guy / Laughing like you never even knew I was alive” goes one pointed line on ‘Shiver And Shake’ – yet the overwhelming sentiment isn’t pettiness or acrimony, but an acceptance that some things are built to fall apart: as ‘To Be Without You’ eloquently puts it, “We are like a book and every page is so torn”. It’s a wisdom that comes from having been over this ground many times before, and while you wouldn’t wish it on him again, the worst sort of anguish brings out the best in him.