No one hearts the Eighties quite as aggressively as Ryan Adams. Prisoner is the latest installment in a spate of releases that have cast a fond eye back to those bygone glory days. 2014’s 1984 was his Reagan-era hardcore homage, and the following year brought his college-rock reimagining of Taylor Swift’s 1989. Here he poses eternal riddles like, “What would it have been like if Bruce Springsteen had been a floppy-haired indie-guitar nerd?” and “What if Johnny Marr was a jean-jacket dude from rural Minnesota?” For an ace retro conjurer like Adams, it’s the equivalent of pondering the meaning of life itself.
Adams’ métier here
is the maudlin breakup song. Sometimes he swings for the fences, as on the
album-opening “Do You Still Love Me?” with its cathedral organs, big-hair
riffs and vocal moves that recall AOR ballad crushers like Lou Gramm and John
Waite. But usually the mood is austere. The forlorn title track lands between
the Smiths and Steve Earle as Adams somberly sings about love as
jail. Sometimes he can almost be too faithful to his heroes: “Haunted
House” is like a reconstructed Tunnel of Love, right down
to its titular metaphor. But when the songwriting feels as personal
and urgent as the scholarship (see the raw-bone heartland-rocker “Doomsday”),
he gets close to the magnum opus of his dreams.