The word Prisoner is capable of evoking two potential emotional responses. To some, it may connote a wild dangerous criminal, barely contained, capable of escaping at any moment and seething with murderous intent. To others, the piteous figure of a man, spirit broken, securely confined to a small, well defined, box. On listening to Ryan Adams’ new album it is instantly apparent that he meant its title in the second sense. Post release interviews given by Ryan confirm that:
“What’s more heartbreaking than any single event in life is the realization that every human being is trapped in a quest for love, trying to navigate a maze of desire. That’s what this record is about. Nobody falls in love to fail.”
To an extent that is a positive thing. This is a collection of painful piteous songs delving deep into the desperate self-assessment that comes with the end of a relationship. A marriage even.
And make no mistake, Adams is often at his best in this territory. ‘Amy’ from his solo debut remains a difficult but wonderfully rewarding listen (and a song that Adams himself refuses to play live such are the emotions attached). And his subsequent albums have equally been scattered with gems of this ilk from the desolate ’Sylvia Plath’ and ‘Afraid Not Scared’ to the exquisite ‘Burning Photographs’ and the tender ‘I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say’. Indeed Adams wrote, what is perhaps one of the most devastating ‘break-up’ song ever – ‘This One’s Gonna Bruise’ which was released by Beth Orton on her 2002 Daybreaker album.
Prisoner contains a number of sharply observed and quietly desperate tracks which, in a songwriting sense, sit right up there with some of those tracks – ‘To Be Without You’, ’Tightrope’ and the album’s central highlight ‘Shiver And Shake’’ featuring the lines:
‘My chest is all tight, my heart still aches/ These are the days you need double what it takes/ I miss you so much I shiver and I shake’.
The rest of the tracks too are uniformly strong (with the exception of Haunted House which comes off as a lesser Ryan-Adams by-numbers track). But somehow these tracks – as solid as they are – suffer by comparison. They largely cover the same emotional territory but to lesser effect. Not quite as sharply written. Not quite as evocative or visceral. Not quite managing the light touch of the above tracks.
These songs tend to feature bigger production as if trying to provide a counterpoint but somehow they don’t take sufficient flight and end up weighing the album down rather than providing the variety and lift needed to balance the album. Only the Springsteen-esque ramble of ‘Outbound Train’ comes close to adding the required respite.
It’s as if Adams knew he had a great batch of songs and was determined to craft them into a perfect, cohesive album. It’s artfully constructed – a tasteful guitar solo here, a harmonica part there – all played by Ryan himself and precise drumming throughout by Johnny T Yerington.
It’s here that the album comes to resemble the titular prisoner as a ‘man in a box’ in a less positive sense. What the album needs is a bit more of that other prisoner, the dangerous one. The one tugging on his shackles. The album needs a bit of the tension created by the thought that Adams might break-out at any moment and burn the whole thing down.
This might all sound churlish coming from someone who once accused Adams of needing an editor – someone to give him more focus. With recent albums Adams has delivered the focus but here seems to have lost something in the process. I’d love to see how Prisoner might have turned out like with a producer like Ethan Johns (who produced 2005’s under-rated ’29’) or John Porter (who co-produced, with Adams, what to these ears was his masterpiece 2004’s ‘Love is Hell’). Or perhaps even a producer like Jack White who might have brought a little of that danger to proceedings.
On the whole, this is a fine album. Adams is too good a songwriter and player to produce anything less. But with the quality of the songs it could have been more. It could have been more than another very good addition to his discography. It could have been his second masterpiece.