Ryan Adams explores the space of the studio on Prisoner
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Short bursts of creativity are more often the norm in rock and roll than long, sustained careers, where inspired moments and clear messaging are spread out through years and albums rather than bunched together before the burnout.
It’s here we find Ryan Adams, now 17 years removed from his debut Heartbreaker and still not missing his muse. Save for a two-year respite at the end of the 2000s, he’s consistently pumped out LPs and singles, exploring his particular vision of love and its complications, and he’s found new ways to do it.
But even without the context of his catalog, his latest record, Prisoner would stand on its own. Where it might not completely bowl over a first-time listener, it already has the attributes of an album that slowly builds and reveals new quirks. It’s warm and it’s deep and it hasn’t left my turntable for 24 hours.
As far as context goes, the sound he approached on 2014’s Ryan Adams is continued here, though in place of his band, he’s taken up most of the instruments (sans the drums) himself. As good as that record is, songs like “Kim” and “Trouble” on that last album would feel a little distant on Prisoner, where he finally feels comfortable to not only explore the space of his Pax-Am studio, but really stretch out and push himself beyond his comfort zone.
During the recording of this album last year, he hinted online that he was making his ultimate tribute to the 1980s. After his LP-length tribute to Taylor Swift, it was safe to wonder if he was really going to dedicate the record to aping the stiff drums and all-too-polished terrains of Hall & Oates and the Thompson Twins.
Happily, that doesn’t happen. The aesthetic is somewhat similar to Love Is Hell — itself forever indebted to the Smiths — but doesn’t stray from the path he chose himself since stepping back into the spotlight since 2011. The most ’80s comes when a Clarence Clemons-esque saxophone solo pops up during the penultimate “Tightrope,” and a synth that sounds right out of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” provides the bed on “Shiver and Shake.” But beyond those, the primary canvas is the warmth of reverb ringing off of the guitars and his own voice.
He hasn’t lost his lyrical touch, either. Heartache and loss are still at the forefront, though coming from the perspective of a man in his early forties, still coming to grips with the reality of loneliness but still not prepared to give up hope. He opens “Broken Anyway” with the couplet of “The problem is what we wanna say / what we wanna say would blow us both away.” On “Doomsday,” he asks, “My love, you said you’d love me now until doomsday comes / Did doomsday come?” He’s no longer destroyed the way he would’ve been a decade ago, but he’s still not willing to throw in the towel.
This all comes to a head on the closing “We Disappear,” all shimmering strings and flanged fades swooping from one side of the speaker to the next. Through just over three minutes, he sums up all the loss of the album, the lingering pain and the touch of resignation, swept up in this shimmering sound that flows out of the speakers for the duration.
During those “exclusive first-listens” and the initial few trips around the turntable for Prisoner, the songs just rolled over, one into the next, washing together in the unmistakably warm sound of guitar amps bouncing off the studio walls just so. Songs didn’t stand out as much as moments did, because the songs themselves felt part of a larger piece, the way records usually intend.
That’s the magic of Prisoner. Beyond Adams’ excited claims of making his tribute to all things ’80s, his occasional scraps with fans and reporters online and the perennial love for cats is Ryan Adams the recording artist, the man who’s made more records than he’s been able to release since stepping away from Whiskeytown 17 years ago.
This is the end result of a seasoned artist who took the time to record an album not as fast as he could, but as well as he could, shaping its message and presentation with a precision we’ve never quite seen before. For all the tracks laid down and vinyl platters pressed in all his days in music, this is a version of Ryan Adams that is technically new. And yet, in short order, it feels as warm and lived-in as any of the albums that have worn themselves into our heads in the years behind us.
So he took his time on this turn through the studio. On the latest 43 minutes presented here, he hasn’t wasted a second of it.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org