On Friday, Ryan Adams will release his 16th studio album, Prisoner. In interviews promoting the LP, Adams has described Prisoner as a record “directly related to my divorce” from Mandy Moore. “I think that’s what fans will read into it and to the things that happened and what was going on inside me,” Adams said of Prisoner in an interview with NME. “How I endured it and where I was in my emotions at that time — and they wouldn’t be wrong.”
In the context of Ryan Adams’ recent career, this is a fairly stunning admission. Dating back to 2011’s Ashes & Fire, a handsome collection of candlelit love songs that Adams put out not long after he married Moore, Adams has been fiercely protective of his love life, and typically elusive and even combative whenever Moore was brought up as his muse.
“I think that’s very bizarre,” Adams retorted in 2011 when an L.A. Weekly reporter tried to obliquely broach the topic of his marriage. “These are albums. If somebody asked me straight out ‘are you in a good headspace,’ I’d say yes. I wasn’t living in a basement surrounded by cockroaches, fucking drinking Robitussen, ever, when I made records.” Later in 2014, when Adams was promoting his well-regarded self-titled album, he hung up on another interviewer for daring to bring up Mandy Moore.
“The deal is this: I’m a private person and I’ll be a gentleman and say I’m not talking about my marriage ever,” Adams told Buzzfeed. “I’ll never talk about it. Ever.”
However, now that Moore is his ex-wife, perhaps Adams is more amenable to his recent work being viewed through the prism of his seven-year marriage. As a long-time Ryan Adams-ologist, I’d argue that Prisoner is hardly Adams’ first “divorce” record. In fact, I think it’s part of a divorce trilogy that also includes 2014’s Ryan Adams and 2015’s 1989, his seemingly inconsequential (but in fact deeply personal) tribute to Taylor Swift.
THE PREQUEL: Ashes & Fire
Before delving into Ryan Adams’ divorce trilogy, it’s worth discussing his marriage album, which arrived after a three-year hiatus from recording — an unprecedented break for the otherwise prolific Adams. Ashes & Fire was positioned as a reboot in a new decade after the tumultuous ’00s, a period in which Adams’ public persona was framed in terms of his erratic public behavior. (In a sense, Adams is still haunted by his old ’00s self, as evidenced by the New York Times recently asking Adams to rehash the infamous “Summer of ’69” incident.)
When I interviewed him in 2011, Adams acknowledged that he set out to make “a Ryan Adams record” with Ashes & Fire. Tastefully produced by classic-rock legend Glyn Johns, Ashes & Fire is precisely the sort of gentle acoustic music that legions of Ryan Adams fans wanted as a follow-up to his popular early ’00s LPs Heartbreaker and Gold. The mood is romantic and warm, as evidenced by songs like “Come Home” and “Kindness,” in which Adams asks his unnamed “honey” whether she believes in the power of love.
“I started thinking about it, the whole idea of being myself and doing what it is that I do,” Adams told me. “Maybe I’ve not been putting enough emphasis on that.”
Ashes & Fire reminds me a bit of The Fighter, the 2009 comeback film by the famously irregular director David O. Russell. In the wake of 2004’s poorly received I Heart Huckabees and a scandalous viral video in which he appeared to lose his damn mind during an on-set argument with Huckabees star Lily Tomlin, Russell set out to prove that he could make a commercial film in a professional manner without controversy. Ashes & Fire was a similar attempt by Adams to play nice, a reflection of his new life as a husband living a clean and healthy life in Los Angeles. But while Adams’ professional stability would continue on subsequent albums, his lyrical content would take a much darker turn.
PART 1: Ryan Adams
Many critics — including me — made two superficial observations about Ryan Adams upon its release in 2014. One, it appeared to mark a continuation of Adams’ “professionalism” phase, in which he has re-doubled his efforts to make slick and exceedingly well-crafted pop-rock records. Two, it sent him back to the ’80s-style music — “sort of lost, vibe-y, American guitar rock,” as he put it to me — that had been polarizing among Adams’ fanbase on albums such as Love Is Hell, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Cardinology.
“The album’s 11 tracks mine a narrow tract of moody guitar rock and guarded optimism,” I wrote of Ryan Adams in 2014. “It presents Adams at his most settled and best behaved.”
In retrospect, I missed the mark. A collection of exquisitely catchy guitar-pop jams, Ryan Adams carries a broken heart beneath its shiny surface. Contrary to my initial backhanded observation that Ryan Adams was “safe,” I now rank it with the saddest and richest music of his career.
Two and a half years later, Ryan Adams sounds more and like Adams’ Tunnel Of Love, Bruce Springsteen’s classic 1987 breakup record that chronicled his crumbling marriage two years before it officially ended. On the Tunnel Of Love standout “One Step Up,” Springsteen sings about a married man with a wayward eye as Patti Scialfa — the woman he would commence an affair with on the Tunnel Of Love tour, and subsequently marry — adds ghostly backing vocals. Ryan Adams boasts similar subtextual psychodrama, most notably on “Am I Safe?,” in which Adams wonders, “Am I safe / If I don’t wanna be with you,” over the sounds of Moore’s accompanying vocal sighs.
It’s a testament to Adams’ development as a record-maker — he’s never made a better constructed LP than Ryan Adams — that the emotional devastation that seems so obvious when I play this album now went completely over my head initially. The first 100 times I played “Gimme Something Good,” I zeroed in on that great start-stop guitar hook and Benmont Tench’s swampy keyboard fills. But now all I hear is how crushed Adams sounds when he runs down the opening lines: “I was playing dead / It didn’t make a sound / Holding my breath / Going underground / So I can’t talk / I got nothing to say / It’s like there’s no tomorrow / Barely yesterday.”
The album-closing “Let Go” sound like another barely concealed plea for escape amid increasing personal misery: “Driving at night beside the river / Looking at as it’s going nowhere / Dark as a room with the light shut out / I’m feeling round the walls for another way out.” For Adams, a way out came sooner than perhaps he expected.
PART 2: 1989
A weird paradox of Adams’ career is that he’s probably the most prodigious songwriter of his generation, and yet many of his best-known songs are covers of other people’s work. Among his most streamed songs on Spotify is Adams’ gorgeous cover of Oasis’ “Wonderwall” that was released on Love Is Hell. To some, Adams’ album-length cover of Taylor Swift’s blockbuster pop album 1989 seemed like a parlor trick, a gimmick for an aging rocker to piggyback on the zeitgeist. But I wonder if 1989 plays a role in Adams’ discography — and in the divorce trilogy specifically — similar to what “Wonderwall” played on Love Is Hell.
When I interviewed Adams in 2015, he suggested that “Wonderwall” existed as a kind of meta moment on an album about the end of a (different) previous relationship.
<p>I always loved that song. And I used to say to this person — this person that I fell in love with after I had lost someone sometime while I was living over in London — I used to say that song is so much sadder than anybody realizes. The conversation was this joke conversation that was basically me and this woman who was very much a Blur fan, and me being such an Oasis fan. She was there for that big Oasis vs. Blur thing, so by including “Wonderwall” on the record, it was commentary — a very private commentary — and probably meaningless to other people unless they could find a thread in that record to see what I’m saying.
That song is like in a movie when there’s a montage showing the past that’s not directly related to the arc of the film, it’s diverging for a second to humanize the character.
Adams has talked about how he learned the songs from 1989 after coming home from tour at the end of 2014, presumably to an empty house. From there, the project snowballed, but 1989 essentially started out as a distraction that unconsciously reflected Adams’ state of mind at the time.
Just as he heard untapped sorrow in Oasis, Adams turned the extroverted pop jams of 1989 into a mope-rock tour-de-force. But both re-interpretations are ultimately intended to mark time during bad periods in Adams’ life. If “Wonderwall” was a “montage showing the past that’s not directly related to the arc of the film,” 1989 also feels like a memory that underlines the themes of his recent work, “a very private commentary” on what he was doing in his life right before his marriage ended.
PART 3: Prisoner
Adams’ latest album feels like a reiteration of Ryan Adams in which the heartache is front-loaded. Once again, Adams has reaffirmed his status as our finest reigning assembler of impossibly sturdy and endlessly listenable pop-rock songs. Prisoner seems destined to be underrated in the short term, because the songs go down so easy, even as Adams has left the jagged lyric edges a little sharper this time around.
The first track, “Do You Still Love Me,” echoes the Tom Petty-isms of “Gimme Something Good,” only the pain is plainly stated right in the chorus. From there, Adams presents himself as an emotional captive, a guy trapped in a familiar house that now feels haunted with memories, a victim of circumstance who is now completely, utterly alone. While the overall mood is mournful, Adams also shows occasional flashes of bitter jealousy, like in the gut-wrenching “Shiver And Shake,” in which he imagines his ex “with some guy / Laughing like you never even knew I was alive.”
There are echoes of Ashes & Fire as well. The winsome strummer “To Be Without You” is the sort effortlessly luminous folk ballad that Adams can write in his sleep, though the sentiments are far removed from the placid tranquility of his marriage record. “I feel empty, I feel tired, I feel worn / And nothing really matters anymore,” Adams sings, letting an exhausted quiver linger in his voice.
But as a journey through the various stages of grief, Prisoner inevitably settles on acceptance. The album’s best song is the last track “We Disappear,” which boasts beautifully descending verses and a trebly guitar jangle that recalls Joni Mitchell’s Hejira. A bruised yet hopeful song, in which Adams resolves to plug forward, “We Disappear” includes the album’s painful denouement: “You deserve a future, and you know I’ll never change.” But Adams has changed. Taken together, the divorce trilogy presents a portrait of an artist who has suffered but nonetheless endured, and come out the the other side a little wiser.