There are no published accounts of exactly what shattered Ryan Adams’ six-year marriage to Mandy Moore. Since announcing their separation in 2015, both have been oblique about the details, although their opposites-attract romance pointed to obvious stress points. A hero of the alt-country movement, he’s a Star Wars–obsessed, introverted night owl, renowned (even in rock circles) for a long stretch of bad behavior before sobering up. Moore, currently starring in NBC’s This Is Us, is a gregarious former teen-pop star who sold nearly 3 million albums, voiced a Disney princess (Rapunzel) and likes to be in bed before Jimmy Fallon tells his first joke. Also, showbiz romance in general.
The arrival of Adams’ 16th studio album, Prisoner (out Feb. 17), offers a searing depiction of what the breakup did to him. It curdled his cream, ate his guts from the inside and left him a quivering shell. And it inspired nearly 80 songs, a dozen of which appear here with 17 more to be released on a vinyl pressing of the album.
Adams, 42, opens his opus of despair with the brilliant power ballad “Do You Still Love Me?,” which manages to reference both Prince’s “Purple Rain” soliloquy and the syncopated power chords of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” “Why can’t I feel your love/My heart must be blind,” he sings. “What can I say/I didn’t want it to change.” It’s the kind of explosive statement that might have been a huge hit for Stevie Nicks or Tom Petty, back in 1982.
From there, the title track begins with a Smiths-like guitar figure and Morrissey-worthy moping. Then Adams moves on to a Bruce Springsteen–style dirge, “Haunted House,” that might have been a track on Nebraska. These are duly sad songs, but my throat didn’t begin to tighten until the middle of the record, when Adams begins chronicling the details of his restless, excruciatingly lonely nights. “I’ve been waiting here like a dog at the door/You used to throw me scraps, you don’t do it anymore,” he sings on “Shiver and Shake.”
Adams showed himself a master of the breakup album with his first solo effort, 2000’s Heartbreaker, which frequently lands on best-of-Splitsville lists. Prisoner mourns the end of something deeper. Adams hopes it will help listeners find solace amid suffering. But the record never gives us more than a portrait of a talented man locked in solitary with his guitar and weeping heart. It’s not self-indulgent, but self-absorbed: Adams wrote the songs, played almost all of the instruments and painted the cover art. When struck by grief, we need joy and humor to remind us that love can be relearned. Adams likely knows this, but Prisoner rarely inspires us to see the long game in love turned lousy.
This appears in the February 20, 2017 issue of TIME.
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