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Review: Ryan Adams, 'Prisoner'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

Ryan Adams: <em>Prisoner</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Ryan Adams: Prisoner

Musicians face many barriers to long careers, from shifting commercial whims to a cruel industry. One obstacle that doesn't get discussed often enough is the simple aging process: If you get famous for songs you wrote as a 20-year-old, then you often have to either remain in a state of arrested development or find a way to get the public to grow — and grow up — with you.

Ryan Adams, for the most part, has chosen the latter path. Sure, he's taken a handful of expectation-defying left turns — like his occasional forays into metal and hardcore punk, or his album of Taylor Swift covers a couple years back. But for the most part, his records have mirrored his life in profound ways: His early band Whiskeytown ruminated on the confusion of growing up; his prolific flood of early solo releases mirrored the boundless energy of a guy who couldn't turn off his own brain; and his later-period records, like 2011's Ashes & Fire and 2014's Ryan Adams, embodied the calm evenness that accompanied sobriety, marriage and his battles with both tinnitus and Meniere's disease.

Now, with Prisoner, Adams' songs tackle another milestone: his 2016 divorce from actress and singer Mandy Moore. And, though it sometimes returns to the calmer feel of his other recent studio albums, Prisoner in many ways feels like a retreat: to self-reflection, to primal emotions, and to a tense, rootsy rock sound that recalls the mid- to late-'80s work of Bruce Springsteen. (Situated back to back on Prisoner, "Haunted House" and "Shiver And Shake" would fit pretty neatly on Tunnel Of Love.)

More than anything, though, Prisoner has a welcome urgency to it: With their raw, vivid imagery of agony and isolation, these songs could only come from this time in his life. He's not much for faking it — which, come to think of it, is itself a good way to carve out a nice, long career.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)