Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker

Heartbreaker (2000)


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 Lil Gal (23rd/1st)


Whenever I hear this album now, I think of this funny song by Jackson Emmer about “boys with acoustic guitars.” I really wish I could find a video or a recording of it online. It would be so perfect, and I would provide a few relevant lyrical quotations from it, and you would laugh, and I would win an award for Best Review Ever In History. It would be so good that it would spontaneously cure everyone’s cancer in the world. But now? The first paragraph of this review is totally pointless and Michael Jackson is dead. My bad.

In any case, the gist of the song is that white dudes strumming acoustic guitars and singing about their feelings is pretty much the most predictable and played out thing in all of music. And it is, isn’t it? I’m sure we’ve all witnessed enough performances by scruffy young men who seem to think waxing 5th grade poetic about some girl and inexpertly wheezing into a harmonica rack qualifies them to be considered “the New Dylan” to know that it’s the most boring, pointless thing you can do in music and there’s absolutely nothing new anyone can do with the form at this point (and considering the fact that anyone who has ever seen me play at an open mic nights could probably very easily apply the description above to yours truly, I think I know what I’m talking about). In 2012, if you play an earnest acoustic set and expect me to even give half a shit about what you’re doing, you’re going to have to 1) have something really important, or at least interesting, to say lyrically, 2) have written a shitload of hooky melodies that I haven’t already heard recycled 50,000 times, and 3) play the guitar skillfully. It can be proven empirically through a mathematical formula known as the Citizen Cope Suck Quotient that 99.99% of acoustic troubadours are never able to combine these three factors at one time.

Ryan Adams is part of the .01%. Really – albums that manage to be as compelling as Heartbreaker with such basic ingredients come around about as rarely as a pig at a synagogue. (Not that piling a bunch of complex shit on top of songs is the path to brilliance. I should know – I just listened to Tales From Topographic Oceans for the first time). And though at 14 songs and 52 minutes of acoustic guitar-based bleeding heart singer-songwriter fare it inevitably gets a little samey by the end, it really is an achievement worth noting among the last decade-plus of popular music. And by that, I mean that if you have any real appreciation for the style it explores, I would consider it essential listening.

As for me personally, I don’t have enough estrogen in my hairy chest to start putting this thing way up on a pedestal of all time A+ classics. Not when it’s almost entirely comprised of a guy sitting in a chair, plucking away at an acoustic guitar with minimal backing and moaning softly about how sad he is because his baby left him. Heartbreaker doesn’t have the biting, cynical edge of Blood On The Tracks (with one ginormous exception, which I’ll get to), for instance. It barely has any electric guitars or fast tempos either, ie the shit I crave like Chris Christie craves pork rinds. Sure, we get the rave-up boogie “Shakedown On 9th Street” near the end. The record even starts off with the catchyass rollicking boogaloo “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High),” whose array of twangy lead guitars and hard jivin’ rhythm make me bounce up and down happily every time I hear it. But the shuffling, bluesy verses are hardly indicators of what’s to come on the rest of the record. When it suddenly quiets down and drifts into the contemplative bridge (which is gorgeous) – that’s when Heartbreaker begins to show its true colors.

Which, for the record, are gorgeous colors, rendered and mixed strikingly on Ryan’s figurative canvas. Don’t let my personal nitpicking deter you. Influenced heavily by Adams’ breakup with his longtime girlfriend, publicist Amy Lombardi, I get an unyielding sense of stark honesty and deeply affecting emotionality Heartbreaker. That stuff doesn’t come primarily from the lyrics, which are sometimes moving, sometimes hackneyed, sometimes straightforward, sometimes abstract. It comes partially from the backup musicians, once again led by David Rawlings, which is impeccably tight, and masterful at adding subtle touches to really make the songs breathe – some banjo here, some light organ there, some lilting piano here, some tight brushed drums there. But even more, it comes from the amazing intimacy and sense of space created by Glyn Johns’ son Ethan, who produced the record. Coupled with Ryan’s heart-wrenching vocal performances and quite impressive finger-picking (little touches like that pulsating bass note he plucks during the verses of “AMY” are what separate the pros from coffee shop hacks) make for quite the sonic experience. I mean, I’ve heard more Dylan-aping three chord acoustic dick-twiddlers than should be legally recommended by the FDA, but hardly none of them actually sound like, atmospherically if not lyrically, the second coming of Freewheelin’-era Bob like “Don’t Ask For The Water” or “Damn, Sam.” And those are even two of the more throwaway tracks on here… he fares better at sounding like the second coming of Gram Parsons on the should-be classic “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” going as far to bring in the Grievous Angel’s old singing partner Emmylou Harris to do backup vocals. It’s awful hard to listen to it and not conclude there’s something timeless and special about this kid Adams’ songs.

There are a lot of songs here worthy of similarly effusive praise, but before I sail off into the night to watch pretentious abstract dance performances and then get drunk (man, I am so Bennington), I will make note of what I feel are the album’s two most monumental tracks. The first is the much-beloved “Come Pick Me Up,” an unflinchingly biting cascade of post-breakup bitterness guaranteed to knock you on your ass. It doesn’t have as much pure bile as “Idiot Wind,” but we get the sense that, although he’s got his own pain and vulnerability to deal with, the narrator is a caustic motherfucker who’s mostly singing about reveling in a bit of schadenfreude over his ex-lover’s own pain (“When you’re walking downtown/Do you wish I was there/Do you wish it was me/With the windows clear and the mannequins eyes/Do they all look like mine?”). A real punch in the gut. The other song is “In My Time Of Need,” which is about the tonal opposite of “Pick Me Up.” It’s sung from the point of view of an aged farmer about little more than how much he loves his wife and kids and how hard he worked to provide for them over the course of his life, which may sound like a ludicrous thing for a 25-year old punk asshole to write about. Which makes it all the more amazing that I don’t think I’ve ever heard a song that better captures the nature of devotional, lifelong love more potently. A startlingly touching performance.

So yes, he could’ve shaved off one or two songs (particularly “Why Do They Leave,” which ever so slightly presages the slick whiteboy soul tendencies of Gold). But still – highly recommended. Better than Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker.” Better than the Stones’ “Heartbreaker.” Better than even Mariah Carey’s “Heartbreaker”! But there’s no way it’s better than the 2010 French romantic comedy Heartbreaker, starring Romain Duris, Vanessa Paradis, and Julie Ferrier. I mean, come on, how in the world did a movie in which two sisters “are hired by a rich man to break up the wedding of his daughter” not win 400 Oscars in one year?

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