“Do you still love me, babe?” Adams asks in the opening track to his latest release, “Prisoner.” The answer, as the album unfolds, is a resounding “No.” The result is a breakup album for grownups.
Musically, the sound is an homage to ’80s classic rock, with a side of country. This is nothing particularly extraordinary, but Adams finds freshness with achingly lonesome wails of guitar and harmonica (I normally hate harmonica, the sound of which grates on my ears like a lemon-juice-soaked guitar string on an exposed dental nerve–sister synasthetes may understand what I’m talking about–but Adams has almost reconciled me to it), and the overall effect of listening to the album is like knocking back a shot of something comfortably smoky and malted. You may know what you’re going to get, but the taste is still good and the hit still gets you high every time. Overall, the album’s a little more downbeat and somehow more intimate than 2014’s “Ryan Adams,” but Adams is still exploring the same classic American sound, to good effect.
So, if you came for the rock nostalgia, you stay for the heartbreak. To say that this is an album about things not going well is an understatement. The singer/lyrical persona starts off wondering whether he’s still loved. Doubts creep in, imprisoning him in the title track and leaving him to wait for love’s return in the marvelous “Doomsday.” But the wait is in vain. First the singer’s beloved disappears, then his friends (“My friends all disappear one by one,” he laments in “Haunted House”) and then he himself is in danger of following them, till in the final track, “We Disappear,” he declares in the chorus that “We disappear and we fade away.”
In fact, absence is the sensation that makes its presence most loudly felt. Absence of certainty (“Do You Still Love Me?”, absence of friends (“Haunted House”), absence of purpose (“Outbound Train,” another standout track), and absence of love and youth (“To Be Without You,” moving in its simplicity here, and also worth listening to in Gary Lightbody’s equally melancholy collection of covers). The final impression is of someone who’s been around the block a few times and has discovered that everything they thought they had has crumbled away.
If that sounds depressing, it could be. “Prisoner” is not a pink-fluff-and-cuddles album. But it is cathartic. Sometimes you want beer and whiskey, not soda, and sometimes you want someone else to articulate all your feelings of abandonment, not tell you that the world is nonstop new love and shiny rainbows. Adams’s lyrics are impressionistic, fragmentary, almost Symbolist in the way they say something simple and try to mean something complex (“The cracks in the windows and the spiders, they crawl /Across the lattice from 1924”–what does that even mean? Either something really significant, or nothing at all, depending on what mood you’re in). In the end, what you’re left with is the feeling of being inside the head of someone who’s in the middle of an emotional crisis. How you feel about that is up to you.
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