Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Albums Revisited: Ryan Adams - Heartbreaker

Ryan Adams -Heartbreaker
Lost Highway Records, 2000

I've been on the biggest Ryan Adams kick this past week: playing old favorites, rediscovering albums I always left underrated, digging deeper into his catalog towards the stuff I never gave a fair chance to, and scouring the internet for all the odd b-sides, sessions and unreleased albums that he's recorded over the years. This kind of thing often happens after I see a band live for the first time, but with Adams, it's like I'm tackling the work of 3 or 4 artists at once. This guy has so many different sides and sounds, and like I said in my live review, has got to be the most prolific singer/songwriter of the past decade or two. He's like Dylan back in his glory days, or Springsteen around the Darkness/River period, leaving a plethora of songs unreleased for decades at a time.

I've never spent as much time with the Whiskeytown material as I should. Ryan's solo career is such a vast undertaking in and of itself that I've never delved very far beyond that. Many music critics (Pitchfork being the most obvious), would argue that Ryan never made a worthwhile album after his solo debut, the sparse, Nebraska-esque Heartbreaker. Interestingly, this record is far from my favorite thing that Adams has done, but I can certainly understand (and agree with) the praise. Like all Ryan Adams records, I think there are a handful of throwaways, and they're positioned about Heartbreaker's in such a way that I've never really been able to get into it as a whole. That said, when the record gets things right, it gets them very right. The proper opener, "To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)," is pretty much the closest anyone has gotten to replicating the Highway 61 era Dylan sound, and it's really no surprise the song became such a soundtrack staple in the years following the release (high class art films from Old School to Accepted used the song at key moments).

Beyond that one song, I've never felt that Adams' veered too much into Dylan territory on this record. The loud, electric opening gives way to an album full of thoughtful, broken-hearted, stark acoustic songs, and they showcase Adams at his best, if not musically, then at very least lyrically. No example is better than the gorgeously fragile "Oh My Sweet Carolina," where he duets with Emmylou Harris, herself an alt-country legend, over the greatest verses he's ever written. Seriously, who else was writing lines like these in the year 2000? Lines like: "I was spending money like the way it likes to rain," or "I ain't never been to Vegas, but I gambled up my life," or "The sunset's just my lightbulb burning out." Harris's vocals float through the background, combining with the lyrics to make a song that is both thoroughly haunting and indescribably beautiful. I have a theory that Conor Oberst was trying to recreate this song when he wrote "Landlocked Blues" (from the 2005 Bright Eyes album I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning), which also featured an artist at the top of his game, lyrically, and also featured Harris on back-up vocals. In a big way, Wide Awake works as a companion to this album, so maybe that's why I've always been so drawn to both of them at similar times in my life. And both records are ones that I was unsure about on my first listen.

Despite the fact that Heartbreaker has always felt a tad uneven and incorrectly sequenced to me, the number of truly great songs here cannot be ignored. Most of the record is understated, low-key acoustic guitar songs. It's always amazed me how broken and bare Ryan's voice sounds on songs like "Call Me On Your Way Back Home" or "In My Time of Need," but then he can turn around and deliver something like "Be My Winding Wheel," which is really just a perfect pop song in acoustic/alt-country dress, or "Come Pick Me Up," which is pretty much the ultimate break-up anthem. And that a record that starts with such a lively rock song ends with something like "Sweet Lil Gal" is mindblowing to me. "In the field where the plane went down..." Ryan repeats over and over again throughout that song, his hushed vocals and a distant piano laid bare over the powerful imagery. Every time I listen, that song just makes me want to press play all over again

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