Classic Albums Revisited: Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker

Heartbreaker is the stop-gap album that came to define a career. Released 18 years ago this month, Adams himself described it as “An amazing stroll down the back alley of my soul with some fine company.” With his band Whiskeytown’s third album held up in the legalities of a label merger, Ryan Adams released Heartbreaker as a sort of reminder to the world that he was still around. 

Whiskeytown’s 1997 album Strangers Almanac had been praised by critics and fans but failed to make a dent commercially, selling around 140,000 copies. It was the band’s onstage drama which threatened to earn them a reputation more than the music. Hostility between Adams and Phil Wandscher came to a head in one infamous show when mid-song Adams launched into an angry outburst and announced to the audience that they had seen the last ever Whiskeytown show.

After that, a rotating door of members, regular bust-ups and Ryan Adam’s recurring volatility and unpredictability made for a chaotic period following the album’s release. The follow up to Strangers Almanac, Pneumonia, was recorded in 1999 and scheduled for release in early 2000. Those plans though were derailed when Universal and Polygram merged, causing confusion at Outpost, the imprint label Whiskeytown was signed to.

Pneumonia was eventually released in 2001 with the sleeve note “Thank you and goodnight,” signalling it would be the band’s last, but in the interim period, a prolific Ryan Adams continued to write. Inspired in no small part by his relationship with and then separation from Amy Lombardi, and his move from New York to Nashville, Heartbreaker is an album that simply couldn’t have been released by anyone but a solo artist. Its fifteen songs are too personal to be credited to a group, and while musically they might have worked in Whiskeytown, Adams’ relationship with his other band members might have prevented such a personal focus being the subject of a whole album. 

Apparently sealed with a handshake following a solo performance at South By Southwest in 2000, the album was released on Bloodshot, but label co-owner Rob Miller was underwhelmed by the record’s opening track. The exchange between Adams and guitarist David Rawlings about which Morrissey album a specific song was on is hardly an inspiring start, but its off the cuff immediacy sets the tone for the rest of the album. Dominated with live takes, and lyrics, arrangements and full songs written on the spot (see Damn Sam I Love A Woman That Rains), Heartbreaker charts exactly what you’d expect it to. Ryan Adams is the master of writing despair, and the album is best enjoyed alone and preferably with a drink. Neat. 

From the desolation of “I just want to die without you,” in Call Me On Your Way Back Home, to the crying harmonica breaks in Why Do They Leave and the thinly veiled Amy, Heartbreaker is the stark and honest account of a man at his lowest. Winding Wheel, Come Pick Me Up and the beautiful simplicity of My Sweet Carolina with Emmy Lou Harris providing vocal harmonies are the album’s high points. Striking the perfect balance between Adams’ mastery of the guitar and his ability to bring you to your knees with a turn of phrase, these are the tracks that demand to be replayed and savoured. Adams laments the breakup with Lombardi, distance from his home in North Carolina and loneliness, drawing on the country and folk Whiskeytown was known for but with more precision as a solo artist.

To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High) and Shake Down On 9th Street represent something of a light relief, channelling Ryan Adams the rockstar troubadour rather than the melancholic Adams driving the rest of the record. To Be The One and In My Time Of Need are bare and lightly produced, allowing Adams’ voice and guitar playing to command focus. Lyrically and musically, Heartbreaker is a masterpiece, made even more astounding by the fact that Adams was just 27 at the time of release and better known for his riotous and explosive habit of ensuring Whiskeytown performances were remembered for all the wrong reasons.

If Heartbreaker was supposed to be a placeholder until Pneumonia’s release, reminding the world of Ryan Adams the Whiskeytown frontman, it worked almost too well and thrust Ryan Adams the solo artist to the fore. The album was critically acclaimed (despite only charting at 140 in the US), nominated for several awards and even cited for praise by Elton John. It goes down as one of the finest albums of Adams’ so-far prolific career.

NB – For a fantastic account of Ryan Adams’ time in Whiskeytown through to his early solo releases, pick up a copy of “Losering: A Story of Whiskeytown” by  David Menconi.