Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker (2000)
This was the second Ryan Adams album I bought, after I’d been won over by his breakthrough album, “Gold” from 2001. It is Ryan’s solo début, although prior to this, he had been the driving force in Whiskeytown, releasing three albums with them, until they disbanded after the last release in 1999. Jacksonville, North Carolina-born Adams was very much one of the darlings of the alt.country genre popular in the early 21st century, but this album, produced by Ethan Johns, only had a very modest commercial success at the time, despite some mixed, but mostly very enthusiastic critical reviews. Adams’ slightly world-weary (but beauteous) voice is a real asset throughout the release and he makes it easy for the listener to really believe what he’s trying to say. The vast majority of the album is inspired by his break-up with his ex-girlfriend Amy and, while there is a subtle melancholy running throughout the whole work, this really isn’t a depressing album, in fact it is quite uplifting in places and the overriding emotional honesty and beauty of “Heartbreaker” are the most noticeable qualities.
The album starts decently enough the foot-tapping “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)” but then moves up a gear immediately with the gentle “My Winding Wheel” and the heartbreakingly emotive “Amy” (Oh… I love you, Amy/Do you still love me?), tastefully augmented with strings above a picked acoustic guitar and restrained tom-tom fills. My next highlight is “Bartering Lines”, a dark, shimmering, banjo-driven song and both “Call Me On Your Way Back Home” and “Damn, Sam (I Love A Woman That Rains)” are both lovely, above average country-tinted pieces. Probably my most favourite song on the album is “Come Pick Me Up”, where Ryan’s passion and emotional torment really rears its head. It feels like he’s been slightly restrained and dignified before this point and then he finally decides to cut loose… and there’s some fantastic harmonica work on it, as well. The superb “Why Do They Leave” continues on the same forlorn thread and, although comes across as perhaps a little self-pitying, I think most of us have been there. “Shakedown On 9th Street” is great and is also a welcome departure from the loss and longing, being a raucous, country-rock number about brawling which manages to break the slightly maudlin mood at that point. The achingly beautiful, fragile “Sweet Lil Gal (23rd/1st)”, the last track on the album is a thoroughly sublime way to finish “Heartbreaker” and brings the album to a rather satisfying close.
In retrospect, I think I initially listened to the two albums in the wrong order. Had this been the first Ryan Adams album I’d ever listened to, I would probably have loved the downbeat, subtle nature of “Heartbreaker” and then been astounded by the leap of songwriting he made for “Gold”. As it is, starting with the stunning second album and going back to the first does make “Heartbreaker” a little more difficult to get into and it’s a collection of songs you really have to devote time to if you want to thoroughly appreciate it, but once you do, it really is an excellent record… just perhaps not on the same spectacular scale of “Gold”. It certainly has a lot more noticeable country influences than its successor, as well as being a little more understated and subtle in both production and melodies. Whether you enjoy this record depends very much on whether that a downbeat country-influenced album is to your taste or not. There are certainly some magnificent songs on Ryan’s début and, on the strength of those, it would be very easy to award this album top marks, but, as good as it is, there are better heartbreak albums out there and, indeed better Ryan Adams albums. Still, it’s certainly one of his best pieces of work and the majority of the album is very good indeed. He just got better, that’s all.