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.