Ryan Adams: Heartbreaker (Deluxe Edition) (Pax-Am)


Ryan Adams
Heartbreaker (Deluxe Edition)
Pax-Am Records 

The first year of the new millennium wasn’t exactly great for a lot of people—the transition into the future saw many people in a state of discontent. It was certainly true for Ryan Adams. His band Whiskeytown, critically lauded yet never commercially successful, was in a state of creative hospice care, thanks to the record industry shake-up from the year before. Their swan song, Pneumonia, was shelved—which was a mixed blessing as Adams wasn’t happy with the production, though the reality seemed to be nobody would hear their finale. Adding to his professional frustrations, Adams went through a tumultuous, painful breakup. So Adams did exactly what a songwriter does when his girl leaves him, his band quits him, and his label drops him: he wrote songs.

Heartbreaker is as no-nonsense and as honest an album title that one could give to this set of songs. This is the sound of an unapologetic rapscallion and libertine dealing with heartbreak—true heartbreak—and coming to terms with both the error of his ways and the pain he may have caused others with his reckless behavior. Penitence is Heartbreaker’s theme, and Adams has got plenty to give. On “Why Do They Leave,” he provides a litany of the little things his lover has done that he’s taken for granted; now that she’s gone, he misses the little things she did.” Assisted by a mournful piano, weepy harmonica, and the angelic voice of Gillian Welch, it’s a simple song that is potent in its poignancy.” That it’s simultaneously one of Heartbreaker’s most beautiful songs and one of the album’s lesser moments shows just how spot-on Adams’ songwriting was at the time.

When Adams swings, though, most of the time, he’s out of the ballpark. “Come Pick Me Up,” one of his most enduring and most popular solo numbers, finds him lamenting missing the woman who did him wrong; he wants her back, and is willing to accept all of the bad things she’s done to him, simply so he won’t be alone. “Oh My Sweet Carolina” is the song of a rogue who realizes his life is missing love, and he weighs the wayfaring life to the joys of having someone love you, while “In My Time Of Need” is Adams at his most vulnerable, a pleading ballad of love, offering to give everything he has to the one he longs for. “To Be Young (is to be sad, is to be high)” is Adams’ homage to Bob Dylan circa 1965, and is a delightful rocker in an otherwise sad record.

Heartbreaker was an album quickly written and recorded, but it wasn’t all morose, sadness, and regret, as the bonus disc proves. Here, we get a taste of the looseness of the sessions; there’s playful punk rock jams; an earnest version of “Come Pick Me Up” abruptly becomes something else entirely, and the jam on “Hairdresser on Fire” makes the extra bucks for the bonus material quite worth the expense. “Let’s beat the shit out of this thing,” he declares before “Petal In A Rainstorm,” and one is likely to think that the number’s going to be a fast-paced rock song, and it starts off that way, but the fake breakdown betrays the mellow rocker that follows. “War Horse” is a gentle folk number that shows that as near perfect Heartbreaker was, the songs that didn’t make it weren’t left off for quality control. And lest you think that Heartbreaker’s minimal arrangement might have enhanced the songs, the rough demos found here could easily have been released as is, and they still would have made Adams famous. Furthermore, the DVD features a gorgeous live performance, with Adams all by his lonesome, his guitar and harmonica and voice. The video’s kind of rough but the talent is definitely there; this is the equivalent of watching Bob Dylan at the Gaslight, just before he got famous.

Ah, fame, how it came quickly for Adams after Heartbreaker was released via Bloodshot Records—and justifiably so. Unfortunately, the press seemed interested in building him up only to tear him down, and for a few years Adams just seemed the latest victim of an industry that was simply using him as gossip fodder, caring not one bit about his talent-a game that Adams would get caught up in, often in a very unpleasant manner that had nothing to do with his abundant talent. Fortunately, it didn’t stop him from releasing amazing record after record, and in spite of all that fame and gossip and celebrity hype that surrounded him, he remained steadfast. It’s all there in the public record and on Amazon and Spotify and other Internet listening posts–evidence that this initial work of genius was absolutely no fluke. Heartbreaker is where it all started, and as long as there are broken-hearted bad boys with regret in their heart, there will always be an audience for this gorgeous, essential, and perfect album.

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