Ryan Adams's new album, Prisoner, arrives with a talking point that’s impossible to avoid. The first album since his highly publicized divorce from actress Mandy Moore, Prisoner has been called, among other things, his divorce album.
Lyrically, especially on songs like “To Be Without You,” “Prisoner” and “Shiver and Shake,” the album burns with heartache, a theme Adams has always explored particularly well. But the album is also hopeful. It’s about momentum, moving beyond not only a traumatic personal event, but moving forward in a career that has spanned 16 solo studio albums in 16 years while also staying true to himself.
“It was discussed before the record was made, that this stuff should have more momentum but it should keep the nostalgic, melancholy that I was looking for,” he says over the phone. “Like, I didn’t need to go on another sonic expedition. Instead I was like, what’s really me, what is my vibe and how do I translate this stuff? And more and more I just came back to, I usually put on a chorus pedal, some reverb and let it loose. I’m looking for groove.”
Prisoner is as sonically raw as it is lyrically, a result of the live-off-the-floor feel, right down to the hisses, clicks and pops of the studio and the scratches of a finger on guitar strings.
“This is the stuff I think people would hear on any record before 1984,” he says. “Late '70s and early '80s digital recording was great in the beginning because it was a way for people to process recordings without lugging around these big tapes. I don’t think a lot was going into trying to make it sonically different. What's funny is that when people really turn to the music that matters, they turn to Bob Dylan and John Lennon and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. They turn to these classic records, but those classic records are deeply flawed in that sense, to what people would consider modern recording. But the way I would look at it is that they are deeply human — the sound of humans making music. I don’t really like the idea of cleaning a track. There are some producers that say, when there isn’t a sound being made on a track, they try to take the signal itself and reduce it to absolute zero so it's only coming up at the time it's supposed to. I know sonically that's creating a very unusual environment, subconsciously for the listener. … I know some of that recording wears my ears out.”
Adams was quoted last summer as saying that Bachman-Turner Overdrive, AC/DC and Electric Light Orchestra had influenced Prisoner, which, he says, was turned into a “soundbite saying Ryan Adams made a record that sounds like BTO and AC/DC. Oh God, that's not what I said, which would be really f--king great by the way. Maybe. It would be the most rocking, sad bullshit you ever heard, but I would just take that melancholy and rock out to it.”
But what he can take away from bands like BTO and AC/DC is this: “Bands that know what they do well, and get into that and stay in that zone, I have learned from as I have aged.”
Below, Adams breaks down some of the ways classic bands from the '70s and '80s did in fact influence him while recording Prisoner.
"The Black Sabbath self-titled was the first big album I bought. I had to have that. I mean, it had a witch in the woods on the cover, which was awesome.… I think maybe that combination comes from the mellow and the isolated feel of the coastal town I’m from, mixed with my curiosity about metal, those deeper esoteric thoughts. I think that's the combination I had been looking for."
"You know in the way Black Sabbath, especially on 'Paranoid,' could switch gears really quickly in an alarmingly easy way that can’t be explained? 'You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet' also does that. That whole chorus falls into this almost gap, it’s almost like they slow time for a second. They opened up the parameter of what was happening."
Blue Oyster Cult
"For me, a really classic example of something that is strange that wouldn’t fit into what people think I love is 'Don’t Fear the Reaper.' It's one of my favourite riffs of all time. It's the guitars and the way that they play out. It's the closest I’ve heard to the Smiths in a classic rock band."
"Listening to AC/DC helped me because I could listen to the different phases of their career, specifically I could listen to 'Rising Power,' and then I could go and listen to 'Rock N Roll Train' or even 'Shake Your Foundations' and I’m like, I hear a consistency that makes sense even if the textures change. It just taught me a lot. Stay consistent with yourself and let the information change. Man, I f--king learned a lot from that."