15 Years Ago: Ryan Adams Releases His Solo Debut, ‘Heartbreaker’
Has it really only been 15 years since Ryan Adams released his first solo album? To me, he's still the new guy – the 26-year-old North Carolina boy with a cigarette dangling from his lips and world weariness dripping from his throat.
Not that Heartbreaker was a downer. The album opens with an in-studio debate involving Morrissey albums that breaks into the jangly "To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)," a cut that's half rave-up, half BoDeans and half Replacements. It's one and a half songs, which is a pretty damned good start for a debut solo album.
If that track strikes you as right down the middle, you're not alone. When Pitchfork reviewed the album they lauded its simplicity:
There's nothing terribly complex or tricky about Heartbreaker. In fact, it's probably one of the simplest, most straightforward albums you'll hear all year. But this album wasn't written to be complex. It isn't electronica designed to tickle your cerebral cortex. It isn't music to figure out. It's music to feel to. It's music to drink alone to. And it's sadder than witnessing your grandmother's burial.
But "simplicity" is a tricky word when it comes to music. Heartbreaker may not showcase polyrhythm and bizarre time signatures, but the musicianship is exceptional. Forget for a moment that you've heard "Winding Wheel" a million times and pay attention to the guitar work -- clean, tasteful, the perfect complement to Adams' vocals.
When Rolling Stone named Heartbreaker No. 38 on its list of the 100 Best Albums of the 2000s, they wrote that "as the leader of alt-country heroes Whiskeytown, Adams had written his fair share of songs about youth, sadness and altered states. But Heartbreaker gave these themes a classic heft, in weather-beaten country-folk songs that marked Adams as an heir to the Band and Gram Parsons." Perhaps no song better captures that than "Amy," his musical love letter to departed girlfriend Amy Lombardi.
Adams' ambivalent relationship with his home state is captured beautifully in "Oh My Sweet Carolina," featuring guest turns from Emmylou Harris and Pat Sansone from Wilco, but it's more than that. The song captures the restless nature of young adulthood, when the desire to roam and the pull of deep roots battle for supremacy. "I was trying to find me something / But I wasn't sure just what / Man I ended up with pockets full of dust," he sings. We've all been there, and even if we haven't Miss Emmylou's harmonies are enough to make us feel like we have been.
"Bartering Lines" sounds like a nasty cousin of Fleetwood Mac's "Gold Dust Woman," all menace and attitude, like Steve Earle channeling Stevie Nicks. I don't know who is playing the violin on "Call Me On Your Way Back Home," but the strings evoke Whiskeytown's Caitlyn Cary and add a particular melancholy to the song. Cary was a founding member of Whiskeytown along with Adams, and she released her first solo album in 2000 alongside her old band mate. Don't misunderstand: This is nothing more than critical hindsight -- or perhaps more appropriately a fan projecting onto the song a meaning that was never intended -- but I like to think of "Call Me On Your Way Back Home" as something of a farewell to Whiskeytown.
"Damn, Sam (I Love A Woman That Rains)" is the Heartbreaker cut most analogous to a Bob Dylan song, from the Dadaist title that invokes "Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35" to Adams' vocal delivery and the song's structure. It's a pretty enough little song, if a bit derivative.
And we're just halfway through the album's 15 tracks of love, loss, loneliness and other things that start with the letter L. Hearbreaker is not only Adams' first solo album it's also his best, still deserving of its mandatory listening status 15 years after its release.
Since then, the singer has released around "200 or so mostly first-person love songs," according to the New Yorker, and that doesn't include guest spots, side projects like the Cardinals, and cover versions of his songs. Music royalty Elton John and Joan Baez both have covered songs from Heartbreaker, as has the Zac Brown Band. No stranger to cover versions himself, in August 2015 Adams set the internet abuzz with his takes on Taylor Swift's 1989.
Then there were the Gap ads and Adams' omnipresent, denim-clad visage. Like other alternative luminaries who break into the mainstream, the singer's ubiquity endangered his indie cred. "Too Much Ryan Adams?" The New Yorker asked in the title of a 2014 article. Poseur accusations began to litter online comments sections, sharing space with the true believers carrying the "greatest songwriter of his generation" flag.
Arguably, both opinions miss the mark. With 15 years distance, what makes Heartbreaker such a great album is its intimacy, earnestness, and ragged edges. It captures a young man with immense talent still finding his voice while grappling with life, trying on suits of musical clothing while shedding skins. In May 2015 Adams re-released his debut on his own label, Pax Americana, so you can hear it as nature intended -- on a thick slab of high quality vinyl. Drop the needle, pour yourself a stiff drink, and enjoy.