Breakup records are a paradox. For the artist, it’s typically a mixture of excruciating pain and dawn-eyed relief, while for the listener, it can make for either a dreary or transcendental experience. Some of my favourite albums ever are breakup records, including Beck’s Seachange, Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black and and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors. I didn’t expect two to come from the same artist, but here we are with Prisoner, Adams’ second excellent soundtrack to sadness. Almost two decades after the classic Heartbreaker, it forms a sort of companion piece, with the artist older, wiser but understandably not much better at dealing with romantic failure than he was the first time around (although he’s probably drinking less.) I felt a bit ambivalent about diving into this album given my own recent trials of the heart, but that proved to be a futile move. As the soundtrack to many phases of my life since I was a teenager, it was only fair that Adams, one of the most reliable songwriters of our generation, meet me at this turning point.
‘Doomsday’ had me from the harmonica. Adams has always been a not-so-quiet killer when it comes to this instrument, using it to great effect in the past. It leads the song into its first verse, and with only four notes, manages to convey an entire ocean of sadness. As his albums have progressed, Adams has become to master of turning a mid-tempo tune into a ballad, something he used to reserve for those with less movement. As he’s not hanging on his notes as much, he can be more naked in his ambitions, ‘Doomsday’ being one of a number of songs on this record where there is very little dancing around the subject. Almost too weary to worry about metaphor, Adams is at his best, naked and direct, imploring and reminding his other half that she had promised to love him ‘until doomsday comes.’ Simple melody, simple chords, devastating execution.
A mentor of mine recently wrote that Adams is his own worst enemy when it comes to records, because even his better releases come up against stone cold classics. But having been through the fugue of despair, where one wonders whether they’ll ever be able to come up with anything passable again at all, I understand all too well not only how difficult these songs must have been to write, but to finish. ‘Doomsday’ is a study in economic writing; it says it all without any of the window dressing and it does it in such a way that it punches you through the heart.