Album Review: Ryan Adams - Prisoner B-Sides

The first thing you’ll notice when you glance over the song titles on Prisoner b-sides is that they reads like a cry for help—like, a much louder, more detrimental cry for help than the song titles on the album proper. “Are You Home?” “It Will Never Be The Same.” “Please Help Me.” “Too Tired to Cry.” “The Empty Bed.” It’s enough to make you want to tweet to Ryan Adams and simply ask—“U OK Bro?”

A sprawling 19 tracks, clocking in at 68 minutes, the b-sides to the recently released Prisoner arrive as a bit of a mixed bag—structurally, it calls to mind Adams’ lengthy Gold, the complete edition of Love is Hell, and the double album Cold Roses; stylistically, it practically touches on every single aspect of his decade plus solo career—from warm sounding alt dot country, to shimmering and dreamy downcast rock; sonically, there are moments when it sounds like demos that never made it beyond first draft stages, all the way to fully realized songs that are more interesting and better written than things that made it on to the final album.

The b-sides to Prisoner are truly all b-sides (not just a way of describing unreleased material)—released in February of 2017, the album itself leaked in December of last year. In an effort to both combat and compete with this, Adams quickly revealed a ridiculously elaborate and ostentatious deluxe edition of the album, packaged in a “playset” with paper action figures of the band, Prisoner itself was then pressed across a series of 7” singles, backed with all of these additional tracks.  

Once the deluxe edition started to ship out, those who ordered it received access to digital copies of the b-sides. Because the internet, and because 2017, they wound up online, and in an effort to combat this leak, Adams made the b-sides available on Spotify and for purchase in the iTunes store.

While the odds and ends approach has worked for Adams in the past—his maligned Demolition is surprisingly cohesive for what it is—there is not as successful of a pay off in this collection. Because this spans so many different sounds for Adams as a performer, I hesitate to say the songs are cut from the same cloth as the those that made it onto Prisoner, however, there are a number that feature the familiar, 80s inspired, shimmering, chorus-heavy guitar effect. In fact, the collection opens with one of those—the ramshackle, driving-rocker “Where Will You Run” doesn’t really set the tone for the 18 songs that follow, however, and it is also one of the less successful songs in this set. It’s not bad (you’ll know an Adams clunker when you hear it) but it’s just kind of thoughtless.

Prisoner b-sides is slow to gain momentum, but things start to take shape, and Adams begins to find more successful material, by track three, the somber “Are You Home?,” a song that finds the right balance between all of the elements that are present.

In my original review of Prisoner, I mentioned how early on, while promoting his 1989 cover album, Adams mentioned he was working a record that was similar to his classic Love is Hell, “only sadder.” By the time Prisoner was released, over a year after that comment, I heard little of that tone in the music. Here, however, in these b-sides, I feel like I understand what he was implicating. In the songs that have a little more organization to them, you can hear him tracing his steps back to that Love is Hell sound and style—the same shimmery, thin sounding guitar effect worked in to a blend of alt dot country aesthetics and perpetual and pensive sadness. You can start to pick up on it within songs like “It Will Never Be The Same,” “What if We’re Wrong,” and one of the album’s standouts—the unrelenting “Stop You.”

He also surprisingly slides back into a Heartbreaker-esq moment—the tender acoustic “Broken Things,” which arrives within the collection’s first half, and remains one of its finest songs.

The b-sides collection isn’t a bad album. I mean, you can’t really call it an album, can you? It, much like Prisoner itself, is just uneven. Here, that unevenness is spread across nearly 20 songs, however, making it a slight exercise in patience to work your way through it and find the more successful material. Somewhere in here, there’s at least a lengthy EP’s worth of songs that could have been properly released; or songs that could have been filed in on Prisoner, or swapped out for that album’s less memorable pieces.

Prisoner was Adams’ divorce record, and these b-sides, more than likely written and recorded at the same time, give a little more depth to the extent of his broken heart and the devastation he is crawling out of. It serves as a companion record to what was given proper release; if Prisoner was the favorite child, the b-sides are like the fuck up little brother who is rough around the edges but means well. For the Adams completest, and the listener that misses how prolific of a songwriter he was in the early days, this is probably an essential effort in the canon. For the casual fan, it is worth your time for sure, but as a whole, it is more than likely not something you will return to as often.

Prisoner B-sides is available now in the iTunes store, via Adams' own PaxAm.