Ryan Adams: profile of a Heartbreaker
While I was listening to Ryan Adams' debut solo album, Heartbreaker,
I kept thinking of John Cusack's opening monologue from one of the greatest
music movies ever, High Fidelity. Cusack's character intuitively observes
that pop music (pop music in the broad sense, not N'Sync), rather than
being happy and full of bubblegum, is more often than not quite depressing,
with "literally thousands upon thousands of songs" about love,
unrequited love, pain, loss, and heartbreak.
This album, the first from the former front man of the alt-country
band Whiskeytown, is perhaps the ultimate in the catalogue of depressing
pop albums, although some may not consider Adams pop. Adams, who wrote
most of Heartbreaker directly after a difficult breakup with his
girlfriend, fills the album with some of the saddest songs I have ever
heard. On "Why Do They Leave," Adams sings, "Oh, why do
they leave, on the day that you needed them the most." Songs such
as "AMY," "call me on your way back home," and "come
pick me up," just drip with sadness, with Adams often issuing lines
like "I love you Amy, do you still love me?" and "I just
want to die without you, honey that ain't nothing new."
Admittedly, Adams is at times quite self-indulgent, and
perhaps he writes one or two too many songs dealing with the same issue,
but the emotion he puts into his lyrics, and his understated guitar playing,
indicate that his sincerity should not be questioned.
Even so, if every song on this album was about his lost
love and his heartbreak, this album might not have succeeded. Adams demonstrates
his considerable ability to write in the voice of someone else, a Dylanesque
talent that has been sorely missing from more recent musicians, with the
notable exception of Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam. Perhaps the most touching
song on the album is "In My Time of Need," where Adams assumes
the character of a poor old farmer singing to his wife during a drought
that has left them without food or money. "Damn, Sam (I love a woman
that rains)," "Bartering Lines," and "Shakedown on
9th Street" see Adams' writing from many different perspectives.
From his own perspective too, Adams writes at times with
surprising diversity. On "To Be The One," Adams considers the
feelings of a woman who has left him. "And I don't know which is
worse, to wake up and see the sun, or to be the one, that's gone."
Oh My Sweet Carolina is the musical centerpiece to Heartbreaker, and Adams
sings not about lost love, but about his home, tracking his journey around
the country. The great country singer Emmy Lou Harris sings haunting backup
vocals on the track. Adams' lyrical talent is considerable, but it is
the music that surrounds the words that really make one sit up and take
Adams is, rightfully or not, placed in the "Alt-Country"
category of music. I must say I think that is a stupid label and has no
right even existing. He does have a lot of country influence, but it is
not the type of country that one would hear on the radio stations around
Brunswick. His music is nothing new, and recalls early acoustic blues,
the beginnings on Rock n' Roll, and country folk singers, people like
Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan. Many of his songs are simply
Adams' plain, warm voice, and his simple but delicate guitar. This, and
his rough harmonica again recall Dylan. The difference is that Adams can
Like his lyrics, Adams shows a surprising amount of musical
diversity. He is able to write soft, lyrical ballads, and also hard, tough
as a nails blues-country tunes, such as "Bartering Lines." "To
Be Young (is to be sad, is to be high) and "Shakedown on 9th Street
show that Adams has no problem rocking out. Musically though, some of
the songs do become slightly repetitive. I found it difficult to attentively
sit through the entire album several times. The danger in the simplicity
Adams' strives for is repetition, and this album is a little bit long
winded, but the songs are short enough to not be too exhausting.
Despite the weaknesses of this album, it will be remembered as a classic, a piece of work inspired by that traditional muse of pop music; heartbreak. Adams has since released another album, Gold, but before you listen to that (and you have probably already heard his single from it, "New York, New York), listen to Heartbreaker. It is overflowing with raw emotion and musical beauty, and it will break your heart.