Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours often gets credited as the first modern breakup album. That record’s artwork finds Ol’ Blue Eyes adrift in thought on an empty street corner, just outside the halo of a streetlamp, cigarette limp and sighing. It’s a portrait of the traditional idea of brooding masculine heartbreak. Five years later, Roy Orbison crooned that “Only the Lonely” could know the heartaches he’d been through since his baby left forever. Lonely hearts agreed and consoled the recording to the top of the charts on both sides of the pond. Since then, the breakup album has evolved while remaining a fixture in our record collections. We’ve heard couples crumble on record (Rumours), surrealist poets turn soberly plaintive (Blood on the Tracks), and battered hearts trudge off seeking solitude (For Emma, Forever Ago). Ryan Adams, of course, has already contributed to our canon of heartbreak with his solo debut, Heartbreaker, a country-tinged exhale that saw the young songwriter posed like Sinatra’s heir apparent: dazed, cigarette propped between his lips, hand cupped over his heart. As it turns out, heartbreak photographs about the same half a century later.
“Thanks, but I’m not gonna cover another album again,” Adams determined after releasing his take on Taylor Swift’s 1989 in 2015, citing potshots he had received from critics and fans who interpreted the project as a serious singer-songwriter slumming it in a ghetto of plastic pop. Perhaps, listeners were waiting for the celebrated songwriter to lament, pine, and bleed through their headphones as his marriage to Mandy Moore dissolved. But if they were waiting on a breakup album, another Heartbreaker, they wouldn’t get it. Or would they? “There’s just a joy to 1989,” Adams has explained, an indication that perhaps Ryan Adams the musician chose distraction rather than festering as he coped with the turmoil in his personal life. Maybe 1989 actually was the breakup album. And if so, who are we to discredit that? As universal as the experience of heartbreak may be, the heart bruises in as many distinct shades as an eye or any other injury we can’t bury deep down and conceal from the world. Prisoner, then, finds a recovering Adams a bit further down the tracks — out along the city limits and able to take in the entire skyline at once as opposed to standing downtown, overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude and immediacy of his surroundings. It’s from that perspective that Adams assembles a stunning scrapbook that captures heartbreak in an intimate array of snapshots, a collection that marks his most accomplished record since Heartbreaker.
Prisoner positions Adams in a comfortable pocket: one foot in a cowboy boot, a sneaker in Paul Westerberg’s garage, and enough quirky proclivities to prevent him from sounding like anyone but Ryan Adams. The opening guitar crunch on lead single “Do You Still Love Me?” could cue an ’80s training montage before it settles into a power ballad buoyed by swirling keys. Westerberg once had a dyslexic heart, but here Adams diagnoses himself as having a blind one, an impairment that he knows will keep him asking that titular question for years to come. This struggle against his own nature and hangups surfaces throughout the record. On the gorgeous, mid-tempo “Doomsday”, Adams can’t help but proclaim that he “could wait a thousand years” while at the same time admitting that he doesn’t know “how to let [his] feelings go.” To what extent is Adams both a prisoner and his own jailer (“Prisoner”), the man still residing in a house full of memories and the one who’s actually haunting it these days (“Haunted House”)? The heart has a remarkable knack for mending itself, but too often this patient just can’t stay out of his own way.
If one criticism of Adams holds merit, it’s that his records have a tendency to bloat. On Prisoner, not only does he refuse to let an incredibly tight album unravel and tangle, but his craft reflects a songwriter who understands how to make each line count and earn his indulgences. Songs like the teetering “Shiver and Shake” and cantering “To Be Without You” are perfect exercises in minimalism, eschewing choruses and emphasizing a plaintive, matter-of-fact delivery that puts the onus on Adams to unburden himself as succinctly as possible. On the former, the verses act like snapshots of Adams’ headspace, each exposing some insight into his circumstances before the the song softly fades out. The latter dances around the conclusion that all these reflections on the past, natural as they might be, are ultimately exhausting meditations on something that no longer exists (“Nothing left to say or really even wonder/ We are like a book and every page is so torn”). When Adams does allow himself flourishes, they’re the perfect touches: a whining harmonica on “Doomsday”; snaps, a sax solo, and piano outro on the previously spare “Tightrope”; or an intentionally clunky breakdown and shimmering denouement as “Anything I Say to You” speeds off toward oblivion. Nowhere do these adornments feel forced; never, not for a second, does Prisoner feel like it’s holding us against our wills.
“It’s nice to try and illuminate the more complicated stuff,” Adams recently told the BBC. “I feel like I’m leaving a map for people if they’re in a hard place.” And it’s the brutal honesty with which he charts his own course that will make Prisoner a guide, or at least a shoulder, to others. It’s not an album glorifying the great love that got away. It’s a wounded but mature record that understands things run their course, relationships end for a reason, and that there’s some sort of tomorrow waiting out there. “Outbound Train” looks back with skepticism, “Broken Anyway” spots the warts, and beautiful closer “We Disappear” gets down to all that’s really left to do: sort out “what’s the rubble/ And the parts I want to save.” Some might say that a predilection for sad songs made Ryan Adams a likely candidate to record the next great breakup album. That could be true, but the real story here is that one of our generation’s great songwriters was willing to dig through his own rubble and share whatever turned up — sad, hopeful, or otherwise.
Essential Tracks: “To Be Without You”, “Doomsday”, and “We Disappear”