Disassociation in all its forms — death, nostalgia, love lost, letting go — is such well-worn territory for songwriters that you wonder why the best keep returning to that well. But that's what Ryan Adams and Ed Sheeran have done with new records.
For Adams, the inspiration for Prisoner was his divorce from singer and actor Mandy Moore. For Sheeran, ÷ (pronounced Divide) is the result of a year's escape from the throes of fame, of unplugging from social media and traveling the world to replenish his creative energy.
How did it work out for them both? Let's see.
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Ryan Adams, who is headlining the Gasparilla Music Festival in Tampa March 12, is so prolific that it can be hard to separate his peaks from his plateaus and valleys. But with 2014's focused Ryan Adams and 2015's track-for-track cover of Taylor Swift's 1989, it's clear he's on a mid-career upswing. Prisoner continues that run.
One look at the tracklist suggests the album came from a dark and personal place — Doomsday, Haunted House, Breakdown, Broken Anyway — but what's surprising is just how much forward momentum Adams packs into the album's pace and melody. There are no real weepers here, not even the countryish To Be Without You (a song that wouldn't sound out of place on a Whiskeytown LP), or the moodily ambient Shiver and Shake. With its opening harmonica salvo, Doomsday is reminiscent of Adams' freewheeling 2001 track Firecracker. Even the stark, solo-sounding Tightrope has a bright beacon of a saxophone leading the way through Adams' anguish.
And that anguish is definitely there. Adams brings many of his usual lyrical cliches to Prisoner — fire and ice, cracked walls and windows — but also some new and painful truths about a relationship on the outs. "The problem is what we want to say ... will just blow us both away," he sings on Broken Anyway. In the post-mortem of their love, he can sound rueful ("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) yet refuses to absolve himself of any blame ("You deserve a future and you know I'll never change," he sings on We Disappear). In a house full of "static and ... panic," he sings on Tightrope, "all I want is for you to make me smile." But that just ain't happening.
The wistfulness in Adams' lyrics is compounded by what feels like a hell-bent nostalgia for a specific, reverb-washed guitar sound — and for that, you must give some credit to producer Don Was, famed for facilitating a similar rock aesthetic in the late '80s and early '90s. There's a crunching 2-3-4 wallop on lumbering opener Do You Still Love Me?; a glistening three-chord rip to open Anything I Say To You Now; acoustic power chords punching through Haunted House; sparse flicks of the wrist echoing in the night on We Disappear. If Ryan Adams was Adams' Heartbreakers record, Was here helped him create a tonal nod to Bruce Springsteen circa Tunnel of Love. And it works. What's next, an album with fellow '80s-rock architect Mutt Lange?
Actually, given how consistent and cohesive Prisoner turned out, that might not be a bad idea.
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Ed Sheeran is 26, about the same age as Adams when he released his 2000 solo debut, Heartbreaker. Yet the British busker-turned-idol is vastly more famous than Adams will ever be, which might be why he already feels ready for a career reset.
"I used to think that nothing could be better than touring the world with my songs / I chased the pictured perfect life, I think they painted it wrong," he raps on Eraser, Divide's opening track. "I think that money is the root of all evil, and fame is hell / Relationships, and hearts you fixed, they break as well."
Fret not for poor Teddy, though, because Divide makes intriguing use of Sheeran's broad musical vocabulary, expanding from bland balladry and folk-hop frivolity into something bigger, broader and, dare I say, deeper.
Set aside the album's monster first single, Shape of You — pop music didn't need yet another breathy trop-pop come-on, no matter how cleverly crafted — and instead listen to the songs that pull Sheeran out of his guy-with-guitar comfort zone. Castle On the Hill, is a breathless U2/Coldplay-style anthem in which Sheeran whoops, whines and pines nostalgic for his hometown and halcyon days. Barcelona and Bibia Be Ye Ye, two songs from Divide's worthy deluxe edition, experiment with more global sounds — passionate Latin dance pop on the former, African soukous on the latter.
Sheeran's ballads on Divide are his best since The A Team. Prepare to weep at least once to the intimate Supermarket Flowers, a tribute to Sheeran's late grandmother; it's treacly but undeniably affecting. There's a rich Van Morrison quality to the lovely piano ballad How Would You Feel (Paean), featuring a warm solo from fellow guy-with-guitar John Mayer. (Mayer's influence is apparent on the bluesy slow-dance knockoffs Perfect and Dive.) This album's wedding-dance staple, a la Thinking Out Loud, could be Hearts Don't Break Around Here, a lovesick swooner about "daisies on your forehead" and "roses on your bedspread."
Even some of Sheeran's poppier instincts here feel more fleshed out than on albums past. The Kardashian-referencing, shade-slinging New Man, a song about ultramodern jealousy that tries to be both sexy and jokey, hews to my ears more toward the latter, but your mileage may vary. Galway Girl, meanwhile, is a guilt-free guilty pleasure; with its charming Celtic touches, it ought to be on every St. Patrick's Day party playlist. As should Nancy Mulligan, an more traditional Irish pub clog-stomper that tells the love story between Sheeran's grandparents.
Would songs like Nancy Mulligan, Barcelona, Bibia Be Ye Ye and Supermarket Flowers have come to Sheeran's pen had he not taken a year to travel the world, to recharge and reflect? There's certainly a sense of nostalgia for family and simpler times that runs throughout Divide. There's also a curiosity about the future; as sings on Bibia Be Ye Ye: "Things are looking up ... Tomorrow's a new day."
Sheeran meant for this album to be huge, and it will be. It'll contend for Album of the Year at next year's Grammys, as will Shape of You for Record and Song. More importantly, it shows that Sheeran, already a resourceful live performer, intends to evolve as a songwriter. It's not a crazy leap forward, but he's only 26, and has more peak creative years ahead. If Divide is a taste of what's to come, he'll earn those accolades in spades.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.