I preface this “review” (if you can call it that – there wasn’t really anything better to call it) by saying that ever since I first heard the song New York, New York by Ryan Adams way back in the day when it appeared on an MTV 2 compilation I got from Columbia House (good times, amirite?) I have been a fan of Mr. Ryan Adams. My connection with his music and in some ways with him as a person deepened significantly in 2005 and ever since then, I have considered his music a pillar in my life. Good music can do amazing things for those who connect with it. What that looks like varies from person to person, but anyways, that’s another story for another day.
So, let’s talk about “Prisoner”.
Upon first listen, songs like “Doomsday” and “Do You Still Love Me” have this dark, gritty 1980s heartland rock feel that is a dash of punk rock, the tiniest smudge of alt-country, and a plethora of Smiths and Springsteen influence. None of which is surprising, as Adams is often cited in music magazines which get millions of times the readership this blog will ever get, as “wearing his influences on his sleeve”. Songs like these open a new door for Adams, that of abandoning the more straight-up country music stylings, Willie Nelson collaborations, and sprawling Grateful Dead summer jams, in favour of something modern and fuzzy and rough. I like this. I like it because it is Ryan showing once again he will not be confined by genre or what people ‘expect’ him to be. He makes music for himself, to express himself in ways he wants to, and gets to release that music on his labels. Ryan Adams is the master of his own domain. It’s authentic and I love that about him as an artist.
Genre-bending aside, there are other things in “Prisoner” to talk about that are more near and dear to me than analyzing music (although analyzing music too, is very near and dear to me).
“Prisoner” is a divorce album.
In creating such a deeply personal album, I am reminded of Heartbreaker-era Ryan Adams songs. They’re songs written by(?) and for(?) someone who is transitioning to a new part of their life, in new places, and leaving people and versions of themselves behind in a process. As someone who has undergone so much fucking change in the last two years it’s unfathomable (living in suitcases, driving to and from different cities every weekend, changing jobs, changing friends, changing cars, changing colleagues), that sense of standing at the precipice and fully realizing “everything is different now, and now I have to face the rest of this alone” is something I’ve become familiar with in so many manifestations of my life.
On the title track, Ryan Adams points out a bird perching by the prison bars and says, “How can something born with wings/never know freedom to truly be free”. In a simple line like this, Ryan Adams has set up a dichotomy between knowing what it takes to be free and not being able to, versus a ‘free’ creature who can’t know or appreciate the ease of being free. He has also attributed this question about freedom’s true appreciation and definition to himself and the listener. He then repeats the idea of “I know loving you is wrong”. I hear this and I think about my first ‘breakup’, a moment when the pull between being ‘trapped’ in love with someone who would never love me back, and also at the same time, wanting to be in love with them, feeling thus, like a criminal and a prisoner. In this song, Ryan Adams is suddenly me, you, and all of us. But also, while being deeply, deeply personal. How does someone do this? If I knew, I’d be a more successful writer than I am right now.
Shiver and Shake is a sparse, devastating account of a loss so great, you can almost see it like sand slipping through Adams’ fingers. Again, I think of the feeling of losing someone near and dear to one’s life. That feeling of being caught between memories and loneliness, of imagining the worst, checking your phone, lying in bed alone feeling the lost presence of someone… it’s all there in just a few short minutes of pain. Like a burst of aching moments after everything feels okay again. Again, feelings I know well that are long since buried and when I listen to this song they flare up again as if those heartbreaks were still fresh and I’m still 22 years old. The first time I heard this song, I cried some tears while I drove to work and reflected on losses in my life and how they made me feel.
I can’t close this “review” off without talking about Outbound Train, which is probably one of my now-top favourite Adams songs ever. I could say all kinds of maybe eloquent, semi-smart things about this song but I am going to start with saying, OMG I FREAKING LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE THIS SONG! Breath. First of all, imagery. Images like “Lost inside the void of the fading tail lights” and “I feel this aching in my chest, rolling ’round like a pile of bones” are vivid and true. The line that hits the deepest is when Adams laments that “Walls are all cracked, The fan stutters in the room, Where we slept, Where I woke up next to you”. The music dies down but heartbeat drums pound lowly as he says this line, as if it’s a sudden realization among a flurry of aching sadness hitting someone all at the same time. Genius. This arrangement is genuis. Secondly, train-like beats and travelling brakeman aesthetic litter this song, almost remiscent without the outlaw country nostalgia, as Adams song, “Trains”. It’s smart songwriting and arranging that allows for a song’s rhythms and crescendos to somehow match the subject, mood or images within a song.
Ryan Adams is a wicked-smart songwriter. And songs like Outbound Train showcase the best of what he has up his sleeve. He knows songwriting like few other contemporary artists do. He is able to take a subject, a line, a hook, a riff, and turn it seemingly instantly, into something amazing. If you see him live, he is able to take an audience comment or something that randomly happens and transform it into a hilarious, rhyming, mostly full-fledged song. People like him live and breathe music. He knows it, he loves it, he’s passionate about it, and he is a master of what he does.
But more than that, Ryan Adams brings back painful and joyful memories for me as a person. He reminds me of what it means to appreciate those you love. He helps me to reminisce about my youth while seeing the utmost importance of standing on my own as an adult. This record is something that came along for me when I wanted and needed it the most. So on top of its greatness, it seems to seek out parts of ourselves that we weren’t sure were there anymore.