Ryan Adams’ Prisoner: Unpacked

Ryan Adams’ latest record, Prisoner, contains a profoundly affecting and relatable story of personal overcoming that is beautifully filtered through a hard-hitting kaleidoscope of ‘70s and ‘80s sounds and techniques. Yet despite the ever-present ghosts of his influences, the album is an original, organic fulfillment of what he’s been aiming at for most of his career.

The sonic ascent to Prisoner began with his 2014 self-titled album, a misty, midnight ride through his neon mind where echoing drums, glowing guitar riffs, and shadowy organs refract The Replacements and Tunnel of Love-era Springsteen. The following year’s 1989, a song-for-song cover of the Taylor Swift album, went even darker, gesturing toward The Smiths and Springsteen’s moodier moments—try to tell me Adams’ version of “Shake It Off” isn’t a luminous, slow-burn cousin to “I’m on Fire.”

Prisoner completes the trajectory of these records. Many have called it a breakup album, which in many ways it is, but it’s also full of hope and power thanks to the strength it draws from Adams’ spiritual predecessors. The lightning-quick guitar outbursts of “Do You Still Love Me?” gesture back to Black Sabbath (Vol. 4 is an Adams favorite), Kiss, and AC/DC. The title track evokes the shiny jangle of Johnny Marr, while “Doomsday” imagines what would happen if The Cure had a harmonica player. “To Be Without You” harkens to the joyous, swaggering folk of The Grateful Dead, and “Outbound Train” is vintage Springsteen, complete with suspended chords and lyrics about cars, loneliness, and boredom.

The album’s masterful closer resides at the top of the class of Adams’ grand finales, repeating its mantra of “we disappear” with production so crisp and transparent it sounds like Adams is actually disappearing. And yet, throughout the images of fading taillights and haunted houses, beyond The Smiths and Springsteen, Ryan Adams is doing his own thing. And he nails it.

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