Two years ago, Ryan Adams postponed production of Prisoners to experiment with the track-by-track remediation of Taylor Swift’s 1989. After waiting three years for self-written content, and a ‘heartbreak’ album tackling his divorce from Mandy Moore, we were instead given an indirect sense of Adam’s initial wounds vicariously via Swift’s own emotional lyrics. Rather than Prisoners becoming an album which bellows and screams raw emotion, what we have instead, (as an almost sequel to his heartbreak explored in 1989) is an austere tone, which is deeply critical and open about his relationship, gliding into self-confession and acceptance of a love lost. There are mellow self-restrained undertones of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, twinned with slick clean guitar nods to Jonny Marr, giving a potentially cold album warmer melodic layers.
‘We Disappear’ is a dreamy, and heartfelt ode to love lost
Yet, there is no escaping a downright sense of loss. The album glides from an 80’s power ballad of ‘Do You Still Love Me’, to an introspective cathartic melancholia of ‘We Disappear’, in which we can picture Adams on the ‘Outbound Train’ viewing the sense of loss, “disappear” and “fade away”. The title track’s soft harmonica preludes the opening cry of ‘Doomsday’, neatly blurring and creating subtle connections throughout the album. ‘Prisoner’ opens with Adam’s pleading “free my heart/somebody locked it up” only to later condemn himself; “I am a criminal”, a melancholic jar against dreamy harmonics. Exclamations of regret and frustration permeate into the gorgeous guitar blasts of ‘Doomsday’, twinned with the crying of the harmonica opening, preluding Adam’s appeal; “my love, we can do better than this”. The whining guitar and harmonica, bridges the gap between the headspaces of interiority, in ‘Prisoner’ and ‘Haunted House’. In the latter, Adam’s maturity, both artistically and emotionally is evident, unashamed to admit “I don’t want to live in this lonely house anymore”.
Indeed, beautiful minimalism sits just before halfway on the album, in ‘Shiver and Shake’. Blurring clean chords against 80’s synth, Adams masters simplicity. Heralding Springsteen’s ‘I’m on Fire’ and Bon Iver’s For Emma, For Ever Ago, we are enveloped with muted emotion, chiming guitars and Adam’s strong yet haunting vocals. Restrained outpours such as “I’ve missed you so much I shiver and shake” and “if I wait here any longer I’ll just fade away”, encapsulate Adam’s vulnerability, the album slowly gliding us towards an emotional climax of ‘Breakdown’. A surprisingly upbeat yet narcissistic ‘Outbound Train’ employs heavy reverb, before Adam’s claims “I swear I wasn’t lonely when I met you- I was so bored/ I was so sure”, seeming somewhat indifferent to his realisation “I don’t know anything, anymore”.
The album winds down with ‘Broken Anyway’, ‘Tightrope’ and ‘We Disappear’, all self-explanatory in encapsulating the acceptance of the inevitability of romantic failure. The outro to ‘Broken Anyway’ is almost euphoric, whilst the piano and sax outro of ‘Tightrope’ encapsulate the finer, minimalistic tones of the album. Prisoner deserves to be played in its entirety (no shuffle, please). Its brilliance and poignancy derives from Adams’ balance of a ‘Tightrope’ of lamentfull emotions, sustained throughout all twelve songs. Ending on a far from glamorous self-critique; “you deserve the future, you know I’ll never change”, ‘We Disappear’ is a dreamy, and heartfelt ode to love lost. The fade out blurs a crunchy guitar riff and synth with a snippet of a woman’s laughter; concluding Prisoner after riffling through emotional “rubble” relishing in “the parts I want to save”.