Prisoner arrives as Ryan Adam's first LP since his much-publicized divorce from Mandy Moore, and given the singer-songwriter's reputation as a guy who's already written some of the world's finest break-up albums, it can be a little distressing to think about what might come next.
Thankfully, though, he hasn't given us a set of cheap, overly earnest sad-sack ballads. Instead, Prisoner hears Adams embracing both his emotional growth and musical maturity, channelling that life experience into a clean, sharp and directly affecting sound.
There's a strong nostalgic air of '80s rock lingering around the entire record, from the punchy start-and-stop jolts of ringing guitar on lead single "Do You Still Love Me?" to the clanging jangle of "Anything I Say to You Now" and the Springsteen-esque "Outbound Train" to the ominous drama of "Breakdown" and, hell yeah, even the rippin' sax solo on the otherwise subdued penultimate track, "Tightrope." In spite of the abundance of retro rock references, Adams' gut-spilling lyricism and vulnerable vocal performances (a waver here, a crack and a tremble there) still give Prisoner enough heart to steer it clear of sounding like a washed-up cliché.
Long-time fans won't be disappointed either, as heavy hints of classic Adams shine through in moments like the harmonica-laden intro to "Doomsday," the return of his home-is-where-the-heart-is motifs on "Haunted House" and the simple, subtle devastation of "Shiver and Shake" and "Broken Anyway."
Throughout his prolific career, Adams has shown us many sides. After the early alt-country days of Whiskeytown and Heartbreaker, he embraced speedballin', slightly less consistent rock'n'roll on Gold, Demolition and Rock N Roll, then confronted haunting sadness on Love Is Hell, rambled and jammed with the Cardinals, and demonstrated refined restraint on Ashes & Fire and Ryan Adams; he even gave his own interpretation of Taylor Swift's 1989. But Adams has never sounded as self-assured as he does on Prisoner. (Pax Am/Blue Note/Capitol)