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Ryan Adams Is Working Through It

His new album, ‘Prisoner,’ is full of bracing, excellent songs about divorce. Are they helped or limited by that backstory?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The question with guys like Ryan Adams is whether the music transcends all the bullshit or whether all the bullshit is what makes the music transcendent. Does it enhance one’s enjoyment of his new solo album, Prisoner, to know that it painfully contemplates the aftermath of his divorce from Mandy Moore, a.k.a. that lady from that TV show where everyone sits around blowing post-ugly-cry snot rockets at one another? Is one’s immersion in these spare, gritty blasts of Bruce Springsteen–brand earthy pathos diminished by one’s concern about the location and well-being of the former couple’s six cats and two dogs? Are these tabloid-borne rumors mere distractions or vital bits of context? Do they turn a pretty good album into a wrenchingly great one, or a pretty great album into an oversharing indulgence?

Adams’s reputation has long preceded him, by design, like a human shield. He is the Berater of Critics, the longtime Evoker of Springsteen, the Indulger of Hedonism, the Writer of Too Many Goddamn Songs. (Mercifully, he’s no longer the sort to release three full albums in the same year; as for the hedonism, he’s given up drinking and hard drugs, and has found ways to combat the Ménière’s disease that played hell with his balance and hearing for years.) Last time we heard from him, he was covering Taylor Swift’s 1989 and doing a half-decent job, ebullient and fully committed, turning every fizzy pop trifle into a Darkness on the Edge of Town outtake. The substance was not always totally overshadowed by the stunt. But it was still a stunt.

As a human, Adams is weird, loose, volatile, funny, winsome, impressively polarizing. As an artist, he’s harder to pin down, or love. My favorite song of his is “My Wrecking Ball,” from his self-titled 2014 record, intimate and scouring and bitingly sweet; I have personally seen his breakout 2000 hit “Come Pick Me Up” decimate quite a few open-mic nights — it’s a sturdy and shattering breakup lament that somehow grows more powerful in amateurish hands. But his most complex and endearing relationship with any one song is definitely the thing he’s got going with Bryan Adams’s “Summer of ’69.”

You likely recall that Ryan once personally ejected a drunken heckler for requesting “Summer of ’69” during a 2002 show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville; it’s the crucial moment in the Ryan Adams myth, emblematic of all the bullshit he has to deal with and the wobbly ways he often goes about dealing with it. The problem is, he hasn’t written a song better than “Summer of ’69” — not one as memorably specific, as anthemic, as pointed and nuanced in its approach to romantic nostalgia. Ryan finally played it onstage at the Ryman in 2015, good-naturedly closing the loop; he does a great job with it, though I often found myself distracted by the old-school video game cabinets onstage behind him.

Prisoner, out Friday and streaming now on NPR’s First Listen, is a fine album, bracing and raw, but there’s nothing on it with as much clarity and perspective as Adams’s recent New York Times essay looking back at the heckler incident. The piece is thoughtful and humane and the right combination of apologetic and unapologetic. “The anger left me, and I instantly felt bad,” he writes of the moment he and the heckler were face to face, his tormentor’s drunken haplessness plain. “No one was there for this man. No one stopped him.” The noise beats the signal with this guy so often that you wonder if you’ve got the two confused.

Prisoner opens with “Do You Still Love Me,” its mournful organ jolted by “Eye of the Tiger”–esque bursts of electric guitar. “I’ve been thinkin’ about you, baby,” Adams wails. “You been on my mind.” (He’s not much for lyrical eloquence; the affable yearning in his voice does most of the emotional heavy lifting.) There’s a feral, bluesy crunch to it once things get going; the guitar solo is one click gnarlier than you expect. It’s fixed precisely halfway between coffeehouse-folk lament and hair-metal power ballad, between Springsteen’s funereal “I’m on Fire” and Def Leppard’s righteous “Bringin’ on the Heartache.”

It’s hard not to fixate on the Boss here, particularly ’80s Springsteen: the arena-sized intimacy, the synth-dappled fields of digital wheat. “Tunnel of Love” is this record’s North Star for sure. A bright crispness, a sad harmonica, a sonorous mumbling, the consonants and sentiments blurry. Adams stares at a bird out his window and contemplates freedom; he moans, “Oh, my soul / Black as coal” on the gruffest track, “Breakdown,” wherein he threatens to have one. You might wince upon reading the track title “Outbound Train” and the obviousness of the metaphor, but the chorus gets you anyway, disarming in its frankness: “Swear I wasn’t lonely when I met you, girl / But I was so bored / I was so bored / I was so bored.”

“Shiver and Shake” is the record’s softest and hardest-hitting elegy, that tunnel of love pitched vertically, converted to a bottomless well: “These are the days you need double what it takes / I miss you so much, I shiver and I shake.” The accumulated atmosphere gets to you. The quickest, dirtiest, non-Springsteen comparison is Beck’s Sea Change, an early-2000s ode to ’60s orchestral-folk mopeyness that nicely predicted this mid-2010s ode to ’80s synth-folk mopeyness. “Tightrope” isn’t too sharp a metaphor, either, but the burst of Clarence Clemons–evoking saxophone and ghostly piano does its job. You get the point; you feel the feelings Adams means you to feel. Which is to say, you feel bad for the guy. It’s one way to make a divorce album, but maybe not the best way.

Not all of the extracurricular bullshit surrounding Ryan Adams is his fault. (A lot of it is, but not all of it.) The world is a more interesting place with him stumbling around, knocking things over, half-apologizing, and setting them back upright again, slightly askew. There’s no point in begrudging this record’s high profile; these are excellent songs. But here’s a better one:

This is “The Love We Need,” from Hayes Carll, a scruffy Texan singer-songwriter, wry and penetrating. It’s off his 2016 album Lovers and Leavers, and it says more about romantic dissolution in four minutes and change than Prisoners does in 43. It’s a little obnoxious to fault a songwriter for not writing somebody else’s song, but jovial obnoxiousness is a crucial element of the Ryan Adams experience, and as the Ryman heckler proved, traffic on that road runs both ways. Consider Lovers and Leavers a recommendation, not an out-and-out replacement: These two albums, and these two singers, complement each other very well. Both men are wizened, charismatic screwups who make giving them a shoulder to cry on feel like the most honorable, electrifying thing you could do. But what Prisoners is missing is the sharpness and subtlety and empathy on that Carll song, which widens out beyond the singer’s own pain to encompass not just his ex’s, but the larger world beyond the window sill. It’s the difference between being a good story and telling a good story. Adams will be fine, even if he never again shows that he knows the difference. But he’d be better if he did.