Classic album recommendation: Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker

heartbreaker ryan adamsDespite what anyone says, despite all the distinctly average albums since, Ryan Adams is a genius. Let’s go back nearly ten years to September 2000 and Heartbreaker, his un-missable, un-skippable debut album. Fourteen — well fifteen if you include the argument that is track one — tracks of near perfection. The only Americana singer-songwriter album that has really got near it since is his follow-up, released a year later, Gold. It was his first solo album since his alt-country band Whiskeytown parted ways a year earlier.

Produced by the legendary Ethan Johns — who’s since gone on to produce KoL’s first three albums, all of Ray LaMontagne‘s, Turin Brakes’ Dark On Fire and [most importantly – Ed] Laura Marling’s newest among many, many others — it explodes into a countrified Americana jaunt ‘To Be Young (is to be sad, is to be high)’. His Southern drawl is met with what could easily a jam in any Southern bar, setting the stall out but by no means setting the tone.

Emmylou Harris joins him for ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’, a slow, melancholic sadness that keeps you clinging on, almost as though you’re letting him tell you something so secret. ‘AMY’ and ‘My Winding Wheel’ set you up for it though with their beautifully withheld folk, both staking valid claims for album highlight.

The album title, even if it was taken from a Mariah Carey t-shirt on a poster, couldn’t be more apt. A then-recent break up with Amy Lombardi is thought to be the influence, and each song is torn with heartbreak. It’s an easy conclusion to come to, ‘Call Me On Your Way Back Home’ rivals ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’ for it’s beauty and melancholy. The solo harmonica can only add to the sorrowfulness.

And it continues from there maintaining its beauty throughout, never really returning to anything like the opener except in ‘Shakedown On 9th Street’, but he’s at his best in the softer moments. ‘Why Do They Leave’ is worth sticking out for the ending, ‘Damn Sam (I Love A Woman That Rains)’ for that line alone.

He might be an unpredictable performer, writer or indeed person, but what genius isn’t flawed? The follow ups were equally as unpredictable, Love is Hell had its moments, 29 gets too down but Easy Tiger saw some sort of return. Now finally acknowledging The Cardinals, the backing band, seems to have given him some kind of release and he’s back on some sort of track, but he’ll never get to the highs of Heartbreaker again.

Words: Jack Phillips

13 comments for “Classic album recommendation: Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker

  1. Lynn
    Lynn Roberts
    12 February 2010 at 10:36 pm

    I’m going to make a confession and say that the reason we’ve not featured Ryan Adams on this site before is because I don’t like him despite having tried my hardest to. I realise, however, that this puts me at odds with almost every other music lover in the world (a straw poll on Twitter today confirmed as much), so it’s probably time I bowed to popular pressure. Harrumph.

    • 25 February 2010 at 5:40 am

      yeah your an idiot. i will accept your bow though. yeah he’s crazy, puts out music too fast…but that’s in the past. And honestly, even those pre-mature albums (if they were) still had some great tunes. I’ve been a fan since the whiskeytown days and if given, I could put together a 20 song RA mix that would change your possibly (preconceived) perception!

  2. 13 February 2010 at 1:28 am

    Heartbreaker and Gold are two of my favourite albums of all time… I was eternally disappointed he didn’t deliver again. Perhaps if he’d made an album every two years, and not multiple each year, his later stuff would have been more consistent…

    • MarkS
      13 February 2010 at 3:09 am

      Easy Tiger is one of his best in a long time.

  3. 13 February 2010 at 3:17 am

    Does it make you feel better about your distinctly ordinary life to say that every one of Adams’s records since Heartbreaker has been ordinary? This whole thing shows the limits of The Internet. Every half wit with a computer can seem important (to themselves, at least) because they can “publish.” There are no controls, no standards, no editor saying this is too general, or mean, or irresponsible. I only found this stupid, inaccurate statement, because I was looking for Ryan’s website. Go back to cleaning out the frialator and leave the criticisms to the pros.

    • Lynn
      Lynn Roberts
      13 February 2010 at 10:18 am

      Yes, gone are those halcyon days when people had to answer a written test on Ryan Adams to check their opinions were right before they could set up a publishing company. So sad.

  4. Adam Wilkinson
    13 February 2010 at 11:28 am

    Sadly I think I remember reading that Adams has ditched the Cardinals again. This is particularly strange given how many tussles he had with his record company to get the bands name on his album covers. Typical Adam’s I guess.

    Completely agree that Heartbreaker was a wonderful peak for Adam’s that will probably never be matched again, but other than the dire Rock N Roll I think he has been consistant in releasing extraordinary music that few can match. His only problem has been that he set such a high bar in the first place.

  5. paul
    13 February 2010 at 9:13 pm

    Correct, the cardinals are over. Having seen their last tour its easy to see why because Adams was a shadow of his former self on stage, going through the motions and allowing his journeymen bandmates to take centre stage.

    This was a far cry from those early days of shambolic performances shot through with brilliant songs and a fantastic live voice. For anyone doubting adams’ abilities I wish I could take them back to gigs back then where the spotlight would be on his solitary figure on the stage chain smoking and drinking red wine and he would pick up his guitar and just belt out ‘my winding wheel’ or ‘oh my sweet carolina’. I’ve seen a lot of performers in my time but those shows were something else and it was there that you really appreciated just how good Heartbreaker is.

    Since then he has continued to write brilliant songs but the sheer volume has probably reduced the quality control and the good were lost in the mire of the average. For anyone thinking it began and ended with heartbreaker go listen to ‘the sun also sets’, ‘if I am a stranger’, ‘carolina rain’, ‘i see monsters’ or ‘the end’ to name a few from different albums since.

    His well publicised battles with drink and drugs have also altered things since. Maybe in the days of heartbreaker he had it controlled and was focusing it into writing great songs but he never became a bad songwriter over night. He is still fantastically talented and has now won his battles against he demons and is married at last. Hopefully he will return to songwriting one day and still has a great album in him somewhere. Thankfully for him the pain that was behind the great songs seems to be behind him. He will always be the most underrated singer of his generation in my opinion and if anyone doubts that I don’t think they’ve really listened to enough.

  6. 13 February 2010 at 10:03 pm

    I’ve been thinking about the best albums of the last decade, and Heartbreaker and Gold are both in my top five. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an easy #1. Sailing to Philadelphia by Mark Knopfler is also in there somewhere. “Sailing” features appearances by James Taylor, Van Morrison and Jackson Browne and solidified Knopfler as a songwriter on par with some of the greats. Wilco’s A Ghost is Born is in my top ten too. The O’ Brother Soundtrack is easily in the top 5. It was clearly one of the most, if not THE most influential records of the last decade. Gotta be some Dylan in there – just for good measure. Leavin’ him out would be like baking bread without flour. And I’d add Raising Sand by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. I’d toss in Prairie Wind by Neil Young for good measure, although I could see being criticized for that selection. His excellent movie “Heart of Gold” (directed by Jonathan Demme made that record come to life for me. That leaves one more to round out my unordered top ten. How about a two-fer? Cold Roses by Ryan Adams and the Cardinals. I get two amazing discs for the price of one. So that leaves my list littered with three Ryan Adams releases. That’s right! He’s that good.

    PS: I am 48 and a longtime Dead Head; first show May of 78 in Philly. Wilco & RA can both bring it like the Dead did in their best time. Headed from Tennessee to see Wilco in April. Can’t wait!

    Anyway, thanks for writing this piece and letting me share.

    • 15 February 2010 at 1:00 am

      Thought about this a little more. Wilco’s A Ghost is born is being replaced by The Jayhawk’s Rainy Day Music.

  7. Troy Young
    13 February 2010 at 10:04 pm

    Now i loved both heartbreaker and gold. Those are his more memorable albums with iconic songs. But i think Ryans Adams music got better. His lyrics grow with each album, and just because they dont hold the songs that you remember from heartbreaker, doesnt mean its not a great album. Im glad that all his albums aren’t like hearbreaker because then it wouldn’t make it so great or iconic. All his records are different and thats what i like about him.

  8. 15 February 2010 at 11:19 am

    I love it when an obsessed fan jumps on an article and attacks it with all the misguided enthusiasm of a kid who thinks it’s toys have been stolen only to realise that it was they who inadvertently threw them out of the pram in an earlier strop.

    I don’t believe the author of this piece at any stage referred to Ryan’s albums as “ordinary”. I miss those Halcyon days when people took the time to read and digest a written piece rather than skim reading everything with a preconceived notion based on what H1 tag Google was returning that day.

    Only a mind warped by drink, drugs and Mandy Moore would deny that most of Ryan Adams post-Gold work has been average. Average is a mathematical notion it must be remembered. When you set your stall out with two such seminal solo albums, people will come to expect the same wonder with every release. You can throw out a few stinkers along the way. Springsteen, Cash, Van Morrison have all had their wobbles… I hear even Dylan went electric once! That’s going to bring your average down you know! In saying that there’s rarely been a time when Ryan Adams has crafted ordinary songs. Listen to James Blunt, Damien Rice or the latter works of Chris Martin and David Gray and you’ll hear ordinary songs aplenty. Tune into your day time radio for a generic R’n’B beat and some lyrics about guns and money and ho’s and there you’ve got yourself an ordinary song.

    An average song or album from a great artist is no bad thing. Ordinary music on the other hand is suitable for nothing more than American TV soundtracks and annoying ring tones.

    On matters of Ryan Adams. His sulky Cardinals show in Belfast several years ago was one of the most disappointing live performances I’ve ever witnessed. His taste in women leaves a lot to be desired but Heartbreaker and Gold will still consistently make it into my top list of all time favourite records.

    I’m now just waiting for Conor Oberst to tread this same path.

  9. 2 March 2010 at 7:02 pm

    “Heartbreaker” is one of the best albums ever made. The stars aligned in Ryan’s favor for sure, and the fact that Gillian Welch, David Rawlings and Emmylou Harris were involved in the proceedings didn’t hurt anything.
    You can really hear his influences on “Heartbreaker,” there’s the Gram Parsons tinge, the Townes influence on “In My Time of Need” and some Elliott Smith-like melodicism present in “Amy,” and of course the Dylan-esque “Don’t Ask for the Water,” but it is all ultimately Mr. Adams’ masterpiece. Some artists and albums just stand out, and this is definitely one of them.
    I haven’t been as consistently satisfied with any of his post-“Heartbreaker” works, but let’s be honest, the shittiest Ryan Adams record is still better than most any “singer/songwriter”-types on the Clear Channel airwaves.

    -chris edwards

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