“Nah Bona Drag baby.” “No, no, its Viva Hate.” “No, I looked!” “Its on Bona Drag ‘cause it was a single!”
You get the sense right away that Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker isn’t your typical country album, or your typical any sort of ordinary album for that matter.
That dialog above, regarding of all things Morrisey’s debut single “Suedehead,” and which album it’s on, are the first sounds you hear on Heartbreaker, one of the most distinctive debut albums of this young century.
“An Argument With David Rawlings Concerning Morrisey” is just one of the many quirks that highlight it as the debut of a committed and focused singer/songwriter.
Released in 2000, Heartbreaker was the first solo album from Ryan Adams, a distinct voice in the small alt-country genre that sprung up in the mid-90’s.
His band Whiskeytown had yet to release their final album, Pneumonia, due to label troubles, but by the time Adams stepped into Woodland Studios in Nashville to record his first solo album, the band had for all intents and purposes broken up. Freed from the confines of Whiskeytown, Adams crafted an unforgettable album that merged his deep-rooted country styles with desolate acoustic folk and the angst and spirit of punk.
“To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High),” is essentially the album’s opener. Practically bleeding with the influence of Blonde On Blonde era Dylan, it’s a slightly misleading electric rabble-rouser. Entertaining and catchy as it is, it’s when Adams turns the volume down and turns the intimacy up that Heartbreaker really shines.
“My Winding Wheel” is the first of this record’s numerous gorgeous acoustic ballads. Over a restless acoustic riff Adams addresses the night directly: “Well nighttime let her through/yeah I’m talking to you/I wanna see her.” Adams’ vulnerability is incredibly affecting, and makes the tenderness of the ballad all the more palpable.
Here Adams performs “My Winding Wheel” live.
The gorgeous “Oh My Sweet Carolina” is a lovelorn, homesick labor of love directed towards Adams’ state of origin. Emmylou Harris helps Adams out on the song’s beautifully understated chorus, while Adams dazzles with lyrical gems like “I ain’t never been to Vegas, but I gambled away my life/building newspaper boats I race to sewer mains.”
On “Damn Sam (I Love A Woman That Rains),” the loneliness is incredibly vivid. In the classic dustbowl ballad style, Adams lets his acoustic playing speak almost as loudly as the song’s brilliant lyrics. In barely two minutes, Adams paints a beautifully sad picture that resonates long after the song has ended.
As good as Heartbreaker’s other highlights are, they pail in comparison to “Come Pick Me Up,” the album’s emotional centerpiece. A bitter kiss-off, you can practically taste the anger in Adams’ sneering, spiteful lyrics. The song’s brilliance lies in the complete dichotomy of its chorus. Over a beautiful chord progression, Adams sings “come pick me up/take me out/f--- me up/steal my records/screw all my friends/they’re all full of s---/with a smile on your face/and then do it again.”
The fact that Adams saves his best melody for a chorus that is dripping with anger, bitterness and melancholy is a testament to the creative zone he was in at the time he made Heartbreaker.
Here’s a live performance of “Come Pick Me Up” from 2007.
Heartbreaker can be many things at any given time. Tender, loving, hopeful, confused, angry, bitter, lost, lonesome. Ryan Adams doesn’t give one emotion preferential treatment over another. With total mastery he wrangles them all onto an acoustic album for the ages, one filled to the brim with classic songs. It is an idiosyncratic display of a songwriter who was just beginning to make his mark on music.
Lucky for us, Adams is still going strong. Find out what he’s been up to at http://paxamrecords.com
Jackson Maxwell is a freshman at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is double majoring in history and journalism. He is an editorial assistant at the Massachusetts Daily Collegian and has his own music blog entitled "Broken Drums." You can follow him here at http://broken--drums.tumblr.com/ or themotorcade.tumblr.com.