Essential New Music: Ryan Adams’ “Prisoner”

Ryan Adams and I have had our differences over the years, the majority of them in the pages of this very magazine. But despite the multitude of criticisms I’ve offered (drive-by appropriation of American musical forms such as C&W, chronic inability to edit one’s back catalog, a sensitivity and temperament more befitting a WWF contestant than singer/songwriter), it’s undeniable that Adams has both persisted and succeeded in ways I thought he never would. So this review is all about props, and on his 16th solo album in the 16 years since he dispensed with Whiskeytown, he deserves them all.

There’s craft galore on display here: Bad-romance post-mortem “Breakdown” is probably as lovely a song as he’s ever recorded, splitting the heretofore unexplored difference between the Boss and the Smiths; his storytelling has never been sharper (“Swear I wasn’t lonely when I met you, girl/I was so bored,” he opines on “Outbound Train,” a self-skewering self-examination that wouldn’t sound out of place on Nebraska); and Adams is starting to develop a classic way with a metaphor that even Hank Williams might’ve admired. (It’s hard not to hear “Haunted House” as a reading on the dissolution of his marriage to Mandy Moore; “To Be Without You” takes this subject even deeper and darker into the regret zone.)

I’ve seen ridiculous reviews of his cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 album that read way more into it than necessary and have basically concluded that this is the breakup album he’s always been threatening to write, his Blood On The Tracks. We may have had bad blood (and from Adams’ perspective, we may still), but, dude, I ain’t got nothin’ but mad love for you now.

—Corey duBrowa