Ryan Adams’s 16th studio album, Prisoner is a monster of a record. Prisoner was released on Friday, February 17th, and I have listened to the album from start to finish about 3 or 4 times in the weekend that followed. Obsessive? Probably. By the third listen, I had the distinct feeling that what I was listening to was already considered a classic. That third listen had me feeling grateful that this album was released in my lifetime. I realize that sounds a bit intense, but we’ve all listened to classic albums that were released years or even decades before we were born. And I can’t speak for anyone else, but I remember the first time I heard Abbey Road front to back, or The Wall and sighing and thinking to myself, “Wow, it would have been awesome to have been around when this came out, and had the chance to experience the music for the first time along with everyone else in the world.” In the 60’s 70’s and 80’s, fans would eagerly await the release of their favorite artist’s new album, and get all of their friends together to sit and listen to it straight through, discussing it track by track. Listening to an album was an experience, as it captured so much about an artist at any particular time, like a snapshot. Today, in a world of music streaming, and viral singles, where the listeners are bombarded with hundreds of new artists and songs with a single click, it can sometimes feel difficult to come across an album that not only contains incredible music, but also fits together as a grand and cohesive piece of art. I am not writing this to make some grand statement about the “death of the long player,” because I do not actually think that is true at all. Albums like Beyonce’s Lemonade and Fleet Foxes’s Helplessness Blues come to mind as proof that this is not at all the case. I love a great, catchy single as much as everyone else, and it’s incredibly easy to just throw on Spotify, hit shuffle and plow through dozens of great songs from great artists. Because of the instant gratification that comes with having so much music at our fingertips, sometimes it can feel daunting to sit down, hit play on one album and really listen from start to finish.
I bought Prisoner right before I left to go and record some music of my own with some friends over the weekend. Maybe it was the headspace I was in as a result of recording, forcing myself to pay particular attention to every musical nuance and thinking about where our songs start, where they end, and how they get there. In any case, Ryan Adams’s new record served as the backdrop to my late night drives to and from our rehearsal studio. These late nights created a perfect listening experience, and one that rewarded repeat listens. I would definitely classify Prisoner as a grower, albeit a very rapid one. The first time through it, there was a handful of songs that immediately jumped out at me as being standouts. And there was a handful of songs that, at least to me, appeared to be duds – tracks that had potential but ultimately fizzled out with relatively no big payoff. The melodies were there, but I couldn’t help feeling like I spent a lot of time anticipating the big hooky chorus that just never came.
As the record continued to spin in my car over the weekend, those same melodies started to take on a different shape. The relatively simple melodies started to feel like running into an old friend you haven’t seen in years, and then feeling like no time has passed. Conversation comes easy, and you catch yourself wondering why the hell you’ve waited so long to catch up with that person in the first place. The songs are expertly crafted. You can tell that an incredible amount of thought and work went into each one. Sonically, Prisoner does not veer too much from Ryan Adams’s self-titled album in 2014, which saw him delve into a sound that owed much to the heartland rock of Tom Petty and some of Bruce Springsteen’s music. Prisoner goes further in this direction, however, settling into a comfortable space that favors subtle melodies, intricate instrumentation, and lightly strummed acoustic guitars, all with just the right touch of reverb. Hints of older Ryan Adams albums are here as well, from the twangy sounds reminiscent of his critically acclaimed debut album, Heartbreaker to the folksy and whimsical music that dominated his double album, Cold Roses.
Although it contains all of Ryan Adams’s trademark qualities as a songwriter, Prisoner is on a level all it’s own. Even the sequencing here feels just as important as the individual songs. With the exception of the opener, Do You Still Love Me?, which is by far the heaviest song on the album (complete with a wailing guitar solo), the record just ambles right along, painting a beautiful, and often heart-breaking picture of an individual who is slowly working through some difficult stuff. And while these tracks do exude a sense of real melancholy and longing, it also feels like the musicians are truly enjoying themselves. There is a definite sense of bold experimentation on a few songs, such as an uncharacteristic saxophone solo that closes out the song, Tightrope. And it’s done so flawlessly, that as you listen to it, you think to yourself, “Oh, of course! Time for an epic sax solo!” And like Tightrope, many of the tracks contain long winded bridges that simply let guitars, harmonicas and synths tell the rest of the story.
And apart from the band members, who are at the peak of their powers, Adams’s voice is still a treasure to behold. He does not seem to push his vocals very far on this record, opting instead to keep to a lower register, giving the melodies a chance to breathe and really sink their hooks into the listener. Somehow, he and his band manage to make an intricate, playful album seem utterly effortless, as if they all just woke up, instruments in hand and ready to jam.
Only time will tell exactly how this monumental album settles into the collective consciousness of fans, critics and casual listeners. But, right now, I can confidently say that Prisoner is a stone cold classic. It’s only a matter of time before history catches on.