Friday, September 4, 2015

Ryan Adams-Heartbreaker (2000)

Artist: Ryan Adams
Album: Heartbreaker
Label: Bloodshot
Year: 2000

This album has been with me for a long time, nearly 14 years. Ryan Adams was one of the first artists of my age and my generation I got into as a high schooler. This was in the aftermath of The Strokes debut album, and the beginning of the retro-rock revival of the early aughts. As "New York, New York" played constantly on VH1 after 9/11, Adams was an easy artist to get into and be drawn to, especially after some ill-advised years as a nu-metal fan. VH1 actually used to have music writing on the website, and I remember a columnist used to fawn over Adams, comparing him to Springsteen. I continued to follow Adams for a few years, through either Love Is Hell, Part 1 or Rock and Roll, whichever came first. By that time, I had been sold that Adams had made his best album since Heartbreaker so many times (and lied to), I was over him.
Because the truth is that Adams peaked with this album, his solo debut. Recorded after (or perhaps during) the breakup of his band Whiskeytown, it is incredibly diverse, honest, and well-recorded. What we have are 14 fantastic songs. I can only speculate as to the manner in which they were authored, but this is certainly not the most cohesive album. The songs are very diverse and a bit disorganized. There is no grand finale to the record, and it is not perfectly sequenced. Rather, it sounds like 14 songs by someone who is about to strike out on his own, and is just writing his heart out. The music press always liked to reproduce the idea that Adams had hundreds of un-recorded songs written, and I wouldn't be surprised if there was truth to it. But the songs he released after this album just aren't as good.
Let's talk about those songs. "AMY" is intimate and haunting. The loud, low-end drum that accompanies the break between verses is the best example I can give of how well-constructed these songs are. Every moment is pitch perfect. Every note played belongs. Many of the songs are predominantly Ryan on acoustic guitar, with accompaniment from either a sparse drum track, strings, or a haunting female vocalist (including Emmylou Harris on "Oh My Sweet Carolina). Songs like "To Be The One" and "In My Time Need Of Need" aren't particularly anthemic, but Adams is comfortable and makes a big splash, no matter how quiet he gets. And songs like "Come Pick Me Up" and "Why Do they Leave" are among the best songs ever recorded for the "alt-country" genre.
The quietness of the album deserves its own section. The production is pitch perfect. The rock songs have so much space, and a great sound. And songs where it's just Adams and his guitar are given space as well. This isn't something I would've noticed, spending most of my time listening to this album on a discman or in the car, but it's certainly a beautiful thing to hear now as I revisit the album.
Adams sounds hungry on this album. Like he's got something to prove. Perhaps the worst thing to happen to him was the recognition and accolades he received after this album, and especially his next, Gold. The albums that I've heard afterwards sound like generic, slightly above-average singer songwriter music, that reflect none of the earnestness and care on Heartbreaker. But I'll try to be an optimist. It isn't a shame that this is the best Adams gave us. It remains, 15(!) years later, a wonderful document of his talent. Every song is great and this album is one I am glad I never parted with.

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