Breakups are a common lyrical topic, and it is common that, following a breakup or a divorce for a musician, this subject will instigate an entire album’s worth of material thematically-linked to the longing, regret and heartache the succeeds such a misfortunate event. Many artists’ most significant work was inspired by a breakup, such as Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks — his best album, in my opinion — which dealt with the estrangement from his wife Sara, or Björk’s last album, Vulnicura, which dealt with her separation from Matthew Barney and has proven to be one of the strongest and yet most subdued albums of her career. Beck, Fiona Apple, Marvin Gaye, Fleetwood Mac, ABBA, John Martyn and countless other artists have produced amongst their strongest material as a means of dealing with, or responding to, a split with the artist’s significant other. Indeed, it seems that such difficult times can unlock a new-found introspection, reflectiveness and self-examination for many people, with musicians translating this into a form of art. Not only have many artists’ breakup albums been met with great critical-acclaim, but such records are often a musician’s most successful commercially, as people often turn to music that resonates with them on a personal level in order to deal with hardships, and heartbreak is one of the most common causes of human sorrow. Ultimately, it’s fair to conclude that breakup albums tend to prick people’s ears, so many were interested to hear country rocker Ryan Adams’ next solo album, following his divorce from his wife, Mandy Moore. Well, I should instead say that people were anticipating his next album of original material, as his release of 1989, a song-for-song cover of Taylor Swift’s album of the same name, was his initial musical response to his and Moore’s split. Swift is a singer who routinely deals with relationship problems, so it seems that Adams’ release of 1989 was more of a therapeutic venture for himself, rather than a record intended for commercial or critical success. It’s understandable that Adams would find consolation in Swift’s music, as many other people clearly do, and as Adams perhaps intended for people to find in his latest solo effort, Prisoner. This may explain why the general sound on this album is very middle-of-the-road compared to much of the artist’s other work, as to appeal to as wide a demographic of people as possible. Whether or not this is the case, I feel that many fans of Adams’ work would have hoped for a much more explorative album from the singer and, whilst there is certainly much merit to be found on Prisoner, a significant amount of it feels a bit too safe.
Do You Still Love Me? opens Prisoner with one of its strongest instrumental arrangements, but also one of the most rudimentary approaches to the topic of a breakup. On the instrumental side of things, the haunting organ that hangs in the background throughout this cut is absolutely dripping with sadness and provides lovely counterpoint to the piercing guitar stabs. Adams’ vocal performance on this song is one of his most memorable, as he sounds impassioned whilst also laying down a catchy chorus that is radio-friendly in the best way possible. It’s a shame, however, that the lyrical approach to this record’s recurring them of heartbreak is so underwhelming on this track. The lyrics brought to the table by Adams on Do You Still Love Me? are so generic and nondescript that they lack any personality and could be applied to anyone’s relationship troubles. Lines like, “I been thinking about you, baby / You’ve been on my mind” and, “What can I say? / I didn’t want it to change” are incredibly mundane and don’t display the rumination and self-analysis that many of Adams’ inspirations have used when tackling similar topics. Perhaps the fact that Do You Still Love Me? was used as the lead single for Prisoner explains why its lyrics are so dime-a-dozen, but nonetheless, it’s fair for fans of Adams’ work to have hoped for a much more distinctive and detailed approach on many of the songs on this record.
Thankfully, certain songs in the tracklisting see a less insular attitude towards lyric-writing on the topic of separation. For instance, the title-track, at the very least, sees Adams approach the lyrics with a more acute focus, with the song using concepts such as crime, imprisonment and freedom to reflect on the singer’s estrangement from his wife. The notion of Adams being a prisoner to his lost lover’s affection is a recurring theme across the record, so the decision to name the album Prisoner is an apt and stark one. The lyrics to Haunted House stand out as furthering this concept, and the vibe from Adams’ singing and the simple acoustic guitar somewhat remind me of Bruce Springsteen’s entirely-solo album Nebraska, which is perhaps even more fitting given that it features a song entitled Mansion on the Hill. Adams’ “haunted house” seems to be a physical manifestation of the way in which he has mentally trapped himself inside an unhealthy state of mind that has left him struggling to overcome his divorce from Moore, who is represented as “a painting on the wall”, with Adams never being able to escape the painting’s glare. Ultimately, it’s the songs on Prisoner that feature a concentrated and direct narrative that seeks to convey Adams’ heartache through the use of literary devices that go over the best, at least in terms of the lyrical content.
As for the quality of the music featured on Prisoner, it certainly has its ups and downs, when comparing the ravishing instrumentation on Do You Still Love Me? to some of the less memorable songs in the tracklisting. Often the biggest shame of this is that many of these songs feature some interesting applications of various instruments or sounds, but are nevertheless occasionally underwhelming in terms of structure and writing. The aforementioned title-track, for instance, boasts some lovely, Johnny Marr-esque, jangly guitar embellishments that are contrasted well with the bright acoustic guitar strumming. As pleasing as this pair is, the song’s simple and unadventurous structure, along with the significant amount of repetition, leave it without a huge deal of replay value. The way in which this song is built up is rather minimal, but it very much could have benefited from some more risks being taken in terms of its development. Broken Away stands out similarly, in that it features a straightforward acoustic chord progression with a very simple vocal line from Adams, but this is contrasted with the weird, almost out-of-place, guitar effects that add some flavour to a song that would otherwise be slightly unmemorable. There are few tracks on Prisoner that are severely lacking in structural development or musical accomplishment, but there are also only a handful that brandish Adams at his best, with many of these songs simply coming off as just fine whilst including a small flourish of some kind to make them at least somewhat memorable.
Prisoner is, overall, a perfectly good Ryan Adams record, but it certainly lacks some of the expectations I had for the album, both in terms of musical quality and lyrical prowess. Whilst many of the songs on this record feature some of Adams’ most ordinary material, the musical highs of songs like Do You Still Love Me? show that he has the ability to produce radio-friendly tracks that also display his fantastic talent as a songwriter when he’s at the top of his game. My main reservation for Prisoner is probably the way in which Adams deals with this album’s subject matter with rather unspecific and uninteresting lyrics on a significant number of cuts. Once again, the better examples of Adams’ approach to writing lyrics on the record show that achieving a consistently focussed and meditative attitude to the album’s topic was possible, but not entirely actualised. All in all, therefore, Prisoner is a mixed release, neither being one of Adams’ best or worst albums. Indeed, I worry that some people may brush this album off as just another addition to his extensive back-catalogue, which would be a shame given the record’s highlights, but then, this is also understandable given the high expectations many fans had for Prisoner.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6.5/10