ARTIST: Ryan Adams
Album release date: February 17, 2017
The Man Who Prefers Cats to People
It’s been seventeen years since Carolina-boy Ryan Adams released what some would contend was his break-out record Heartbreaker, a collection of astute songs written during a decidedly hazy time in his own life: listeners were stunned into reverential silence by the lyrical and emotional girth of songs like Come Pick Me Up and Oh My Sweet Carolina, sensing the honesty of the misfit, drugged-out, crushed old soul behind the music. Here was someone we could actually trust to tell it to us straight, albeit with a liberal dash of salty humanity. Since that solo record was released (I’m honestly not sure which number it was – he has released 16 solo records in his career, remarkably), Adams has embraced a sober lifestyle, expanded his repetoire, recorded numerous albums, toured extensively, and – most significantly – was married for six years and then divorced in early 2015. In the wake of this great loss he has acquired several large cats, a couple pinball machines, and a home haunted by beautiful memories: the self-described fool for love hasn’t stopped creating out of places of pain, and that brings us here today to discuss his latest album Prisoner.
For anyone unfamiliar with Ryan Adams, it’ll be helpful to know that few people adore the 80s as much as he. I’d bet good money that he watched The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and Willow when he was a kid, and that those films affected his brain as much as the writings of Edgar Allen Poe (which he says he would read while wandering through the woods). Most anything colorful, odd, expressive, experimental, brooding, tangled, imaginative, and/or related to Space OR cats resonates with the man, who comes off as a soft-spoken, hilariously funny, inveterate nerd in interviews. His approach to music is straightforward but eclectic, similar to his personality: he’s explored folk, country, rock, Americana, and whatever spaces exist in-between, but his ethos – which comes through in his frank lyrics – has remained consistent in its anguish and in its hesitant hopefulness. With Prisoner, he’s unleashing a whole lot of his love: love for the 80s era of music, love that’s been lost, and love that believes better days are ahead.
On The Menu: 80’s Heartbreak Rock
Things start off dramatically with Do You Still Love Me, pulsing with false starts on the electric ala ACDC: or, as Adams himself describes it, ala Prince: Prince, wailing on a couple of Les Pauls, that is. The lyrics for the song came as it was being recorded (over the course of just five takes), with the strongest sentiment being expressed in the unanswerable riddle of where a former flame’s heart lies. It’s a powerful start that identifies the album as a celebration of 80s heartbreak rock: deeper still, a celebration of moving on and being grateful for life’s lessons.
From here, there aren’t many risks taken by Adams either sonically or thematically, but the songs unfold at a natural pace that is blessedly devoid of pretentiousness. Adams played everything himself – guitar, bass, synth – the only things he didn’t play being the drums and saxophone. It was recorded in a live room, with the drums and guitar on one track, so as to merge them into one sound; the lack of baffling was something he insisted on during production (which he guided judiciously). “I’m a Scorpio. Which means I’m a bastard. I don’t like to be told what lines to color in artistically.”
A few songs stand out as being especially strong within this line-up of predictable reiterations of earlier work. Haunted House dives into the frightfulness of remembrance after things that once seemed shiny and indestructible have been razed to the ground, and is made particularly poignant when listened to in light of the evident love and concern Adams still has for his ex-wife (musician and actress Mandy Moore). The layered guitars here – and elsewhere, throughout the album – have a certain dreamy repetitiveness that sounds tired and uninspired, though Adams’ hope was that the layering would impart an atmosphere of romanticism, which, he says, “means being aware, being present to a given situation … An awareness of what life is.” The good news is that his lyrics and vocal delivery remain above the linearism of the music, conjuring up imagery that packs a wallop: he is certainly very present to both the pain and the beauty of the situation he finds himself in.
Shiver and Shake is another example of his proclivity for emotional frankness. It’s a slow build, with synthy keyboard entering in after the first verse. It’s lines like this one – “I’ve been waiting here like a dog at your door. You used to throw me scraps, you don’t do it anymore,” followed directly by, “I miss your loving touch, I miss your embrace,” that are the on-the-nose, uncomfortably open lyrics which set him apart. My favorite line from the album comes from Outbound Train, a song situated near the end of the album: “I’ve got this achin’ in my chest, rollin’ around like a pile of bones in a broken little box. Sounds alot like you, laughing to yourself in a quiet room.” He brings up the loneliness of the night frequently – that terror of facing the apparent emptiness of a love you once felt sure of.
Only The Lover Sings
Adams, as we know, is the master of melancholy. He sings heartbreaking songs. And while his experience of divorce is surely a unique experience of pain in his 41 years on the planet, somehow these songs have less of an edge to them than his earlier writing. The twenty-something behind Heartbreaker was on the verge of imploding physically from substance abuse, and emotionally from a devastating sensitivity to life: “I see this beautiful and tragic world, and I do my best to describe it, because it’s been crushing to me since I was a kid.” There was a bitterness in the tension then, an anger toward suffering and disappointment; and the music beneath the words took a variety of gutsy twists and turns – and the kid lived and kept on getting his heart smashed.
Now, though, with Prisoner, we hear a tired Adams channeling his worn-out feelings through the medium of one of his favorite eras. Because, well, he can: and because enough people trust him to be real. And although it’s less engaging and memorable than much of his previous work, it’s an honest piece that deserves admiration for its style, and for its historicity within the life of a man who’s hasn’t stopped trying to figure out what it all means.