I’ve heard a thousand records like Prisoner. They were the kind of albums I’d play on drives with friends, the kinds of records with just enough of a hometown bend and just enough of road-worn lyricism to sound endlessly familiar. They’re probably albums you’ve heard before, too. Think Tom Petty, Bob Seger, John Mellencamp and, yes, Bryan Adams. Acoustic guitars and harmonicas, country rock licks and big choruses, heart-on-sleeve clichés, houses, highways, girls, etc.
I can’t deny how comfortable Prisoner is to me, actually. The sound Ryan Adams channels feels like the natural heir to Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen, two of the artists that defined my formative years and still soundtrack so much of my life. Those were honest smiles that I cracked when listening to “Do You Still Love Me?”
Listening to Prisoner was cathartic. I began drawing links to some of my old favorite songs as I kept listening, mapping Springsteen songs or Mellencamp songs onto Ryan Adams’ and thinking back to the specific conversations where “Brilliant Disguise” or “Pink Houses” may have been playing in the background.
This might be where I’d normally insert the “but” part of this review, but I would actually like to commend Ryan Adams’ ability to echo that older, anthemic Americana. There was never a moment on Prisoner where I felt a guitar was out of place or a cooed line was too bland. Songs sound focused and punchy, and Adams’ choruses could hit in a way that feels indie radio ready. Even an acoustic number like “Tightrope” sounded danceable.
But Prisoner captures a moment of American rock radio without standing out.
Why would I listen to Ryan Adams play a song that sounds like Bruce Springsteen if I could just listen to Bruce Springsteen instead? It’s an argument that sounds incredibly dismissive, especially when it’s incredibly likely I’ll revisit Prisoner down the road simply because I enjoy that sound so much. But Prisoner simply isn’t as dramatic as those other records. Or as wise as those other records. Or as youthful. Or even as fun. It’s just… there.
Prisoner is the kind of record I would have loved a few years ago, when I could still make sense of life with late night drives and copies of Waiting burned onto an iPod. Now there’s so much more I want out of music and so much more I hear in music, and in this light, Prisoner doesn’t do enough. It’s too familiar for that.
It makes perfect sense to me that Ryan Adams would deal with his divorce by making an 80s rock album. This is the least surprising thing he has ever done. I am fairly certain that Ryan Adams deals with most life events and emotions by making 80s rock albums. His cry is a saxophone’s wail, his tears hitting the floor are slightly gated snare hits.
But here’s the thing, I bet if Prisoners had come out in the 80s it wouldn’t have been one of the albums Adams looked to when he was making Prisoners. Time paradoxes aside, it’s not the type of album that stands out in the crowd.
It is a collection of references to the works of other artists who successfully portrayed the emotions that Adams is trying to portray.
It is excellent, brilliantly constructed pastiche. Flawless, really. It feels like you know every line and every guitar lick and every drum fill before they occur, and there is a satisfaction and comfort in that. In that way the album does an excellent job of sharing Adams’ sadness, just not in a way that feels artistically satisfying. It’s like he’s reminiscing with you over a stack of albums you both know and love. I can’t fault that because it’s a very human thing and in its own way it’s beautiful that an actual album can portray that experience in a way.
It also feels like a diversionary tactic, just like it would if you were there in person with him. Adams feels removed from these songs, often substituting protracted metaphors for actual emotional gristle. The title track is the worst offender, imagining Adams as a white-and-black-striped criminal waiting on parole in a prison of love. He never quite gets to the point of mixing toilet wine or trading cigs, but it feels like he’s right on that verge. Same with “Haunted House,” which takes the incredibly cliche concept of relationship-as-house or solitary-living-as-house and does nothing interesting with it at all (see last year’s “Human Performance” for a far richer spin on the idea). A notable exception here is “Outbound Train,” which is one of the few songs here that feels like Adams actually bearing his soul for the listener:
I got this achin' in my chest Rollin' around like a pile of bones In a broken little box It sounds a lot like you Laughing to yourself In a quiet room
I suppose I should be more relieved that the song isn’t just a collection of train imagery but here we are.
Now I must make the conscious decision to not savage this album for its lazy metaphors. After all, a lot of 80s rock albums were all about lazy metaphors. This particular one is too well made to throw it under that outbound train, and sitting down with Adams to listen to some power ballads and maybe cry a little isn’t a terrible way to spend these short winter afternoons. If this whole process helps him heal, then we both got something out of Prisoners.