Oh, the ballad of the Break Up Album. For nearly 40 years, it’s been practically its own genre — longer if you count Frank Sinatra’s gin and teardrop cocktails of the 50s. The recipe for auditory despair has remained largely unchanged since: man falls in love with woman, woman rips out man’s heart, man picks up acoustic guitar. Commence strumming. Consider it the national pastime for coming-of-age men. It also marks a time when the court jester can no longer muster up the yuks, as heard on the bitter accusations of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks or the doom and gloom of Beck’s Sea Change. When Betsy Fetter broke up with me in sixth grade, I took to the Eastland Mall’s karaoke booth and recorded a cover of Mr. Big’s hit “To Be With You.” The results were both terrible and cathartic. Which brings me to Ryan Adams’ new LP, Prisoner.
Prisoner is being packaged as Adams’ response to his divorce from Disney Princess (and erstwhile pop star) Mandy Moore. And the proceedings start promising enough. Right out of the gate, Adams puts his heart on his denim sleeve. “Do You Still Love Me?” leaves no room for doubt of what the next 40 minutes have in store. Grab your boombox and slip on the trench coat, we’ve got a front yard to occupy. “Do You Still Love Me?” sounds like a J. Geils track — if the Western Mass rocker ended up marrying (and divorcing) Angel the Centerfold. Sadly, this is the only of its kind on Prisoner. Each ensuing track slides further and further down sad-sack minstrelsy.
Adams attempts his best Springsteen gravitas on “Doomsday,” but where The Boss can spin a lady dizzy with mixed metaphors, Adams lazily pleads “My love… we can do better.” One could say the same, Ryan.
Over the years, Adams has taken quite a bit of shit about his tendency for simple, rhyming couplets. And he’s certainly not going to win over his naysayers on Prisoner. Take “Haunted House,” for example. Sung with overreaching earnestness that would make Bon Iver blush, Adams describes being the sole occupant of — you guessed it — a lonely house. This song is then followed by the Living Years-era Mike + the Mechanics melodrama of “Shiver and Shake.” Adams describes himself as “waiting here like a dog at the door”; the song is lifted with some lofty synths but ultimately never quite takes flight.
At this point in the album, Adams has reached redundant territory. “Why did you leave? And will you come back?” Dylan was wise enough to sometimes point the finger at himself. Adams seems devoid of that self-awareness, which causes one track to essentially bleed into the next. Break-up albums are best when the aggrieved finally looks inward. Adams is having a one-sided conversation (minus the hooks). Why was “To Be Without You” the lead single? No idea. Guess that’s where the dart landed. “Broken Anyway” flies in the face of my theory that any song featuring hand claps is a hit.
Divorce aside (or notwithstanding), it’s been a rough couple of years for Adams. His pop experiment, the full on cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 had more hot take flames around it than Civil War Atlanta. It was an interesting idea on paper, but the end results were just plain dull (one bright spot was last year’s Adams-produced La Sera album).
For all of his eclectic tastes (a typical interview will feature references to Black Flag, Jones Very and The Grateful Dead — sometimes in the same sentence), Adams belongs more to that style of troubadour that came alive in the 80s. You know the type: butt clenching jeans, perfectly messy hair, equally at home as a Soap Star. Unfortunately, Adams never seems to want to embrace his inner Michael Damian – remember how ticked Adams used to get when somebody accidentally referred to him as Bryan? The songs on Prisoner seem shackled to the chains of (unrequited) love. Here’s hoping that Adams eventually teams with a producer who convinces him to let loose (kind of like how he did with the aforementioned La Sera). And when he does, he’ll finally paint his masterpiece. Rock on!
Mike Postalakis (@mikepostalakis) is a writer, director and comedian living in Los Angeles. He doesn’t have a Netflix, Hulu, Amazon or HBO Go account. Instead, he spends his extra money at the Gap.