In 2001, a mere 12 days before the World Trade Center attacks, Ryan Adams shot the video for his hit “New York, New York”, from his album Gold. The imagery of the twin towers in the background of his video instantly put Adams in the spotlight, because, as I’m sure you remember, America was obsessed with anything having to do with September 11, 2001.

But before the North Carolina native sang the ode to his current residence, he had been in the band Whiskeytown, an alt-country/Americana band. Whiskeytown were, respectively, coming to an end in 2000 when Adams released his first solo album, Heartbreaker.

Recorded in Nashville in 2000, Heartbreaker is clearly a product of Adams’ heavy diet of country music such as Gram Parsons and Johnny Cash but it is also a throwback to the classic songwriting style of artists like Bob Dylan or Neil Young. Adams is even often accused of being too similar to Bob Dylan (like that’s a problem?). Heartbreaker’s songs of love and love lost range from jangly rockers, to slow moody ballads and folky songs with refrains filled with banjo and harmonicas. The songs are raw, unembellished, and earnest without being too cliché.

Adams’ brooding voice and pining lyrics make nothing about this album upbeat or happy. Granted, it’s not going to make you want to sit in your room and slit your wrists, but the album is called Heartbreaker for a reason. Alternative Press magazine, in 2004, even called it an "accidentally emo" album. This record leaves rock'n'roll on the shelf in favor of a sound that blends low key folk-rock with a rootsy, bluegrass-accented undertow, but Heartbreaker makes up in emotion what it lacks in volume.

The album opens with "(Argument with David Rawlings concerning Morrissey)" which isn’t so much a song, but a comedic segue into "To Be Young (is to be sad, is to be high)", a song reminiscent of Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women”, about the perils of being young, fucked up, and heartbroken. "My Winding Wheel" continues the upbeat-yet-melancholy song trend on the album, with gentle guitar riffs and a church organ, while Adams begs a lover to be his "winding wheel", but doesn't think himself good enough to do so.

In "AMY", Adams is heartachingly vulnerable in a song re-discovering his love for someone. This track was produced by Jon Brion, a 60s pop expert, so "AMY" comes across a little, dare I say, psychedelic. With vibraphones, organs, and a string quartet, one could think that "AMY" would belong on something like the White Album.

The next track, "Oh My Sweet Carolina", a duet of sorts with Emmylou Harris, Adams croons about innocence lost, as it were, by leaving his home. Adams laments that he is "tryin' to find me something, but I wasn't sure just what." The stripped down sound of the song lets Adams showcase his strong vocal ability, and with Harris on back-up, it becomes a beautiful and longing ballad.

"Bartering Lines" is a folky, banjo-filled, almost chant-like song about how love is nothing but a game of pain and loss, and that in the end, you usually only get fucked over (can't you tell that I've had a lot of luck in love? *rolls eyes*). "Call Me On the Way Back Home" is a melancholy and passionate guitar-and-strings driven song about admitting you fucked up (which guys never do, but anyway). Adams is wistfully poetic and pleading, saying that he "just want(s) to die without you." My friend Carlos tells me that if he ever killed himself, he would do it listening to this song. Hrm, okay then.

The next two songs "Damn Sam (I love a woman that rains)" and "Come Pick Me Up" are meant to be heard one after the other. It's not the same song, but if you're listening to Heartbreaker, don't put it on random. "Damn Sam..." is another Dylan-esque song in which Adams quivers out folky lyrics like "I'm as calm as a fruitstand in New York, and maybe as strange", and gently transitions into "Come Pick Me Up", a country-rock song wrenching with melancholy and dry wit. The chorus is big and wistful, filled with harmony and hooks. The song taps into a deep sense of pathos and self-deprecation, and with every word you know exactly what Adams is talking about.

The rest of the album, with the exception of "Shakedown on 9th Street" wraps up one of the saddest albums of the last 20 years. "Why Do They Leave?" is, yeah, one of those "my girl left me and now I'm sad" songs, but it's definitley not one of the cliché tunes that appear so much in its genre. "Don't Ask for the Water" and "In My Time of Need" is a acoustic guitar/harmonica seque into the piano-filled, ethereal "Sweet Little Gal (23rd/1st)", the album's coda, a song about a girl who "steals his shirts" (note: Adams was dating Winona Ryder at the time this album was written...whoda thunk?).

Heartbreaker is my favorite album, and it should be yours, too.

  1. (Argument with David Rawlings concerning Morrissey)
  2. To Be Young (is to be sad, is to be high)
  3. My Winding Wheel
  4. AMY
  5. Oh My Sweet Carolina
  6. Bartering Lines
  7. Call Me On Your Way Back Home
  8. Damn, Sam (I love a woman that rains)
  9. Come Pick Me Up
  10. To Be the One
  11. Why Do They Leave?
  12. Shakedown on 9th Street
  13. Don’t Ask for the Water
  14. In My Time of Need
  15. Sweet Little Gal (23rd/1st)

Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker was released in 2000 by Bloodshot records.

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