Decade :: Ryan Adams, Heartbreaker (2000)


What is it that makes us want to deconstruct art by units of time? Lists. We love making them. We love arguing over them. And here, on the verge of a new decade, we’re in a position to do the same again. What were the best albums of the past ten years?

Here at AD, we started talking it through and decided we weren’t going to add to the cacophony of lists being put out by various music pubs. There are enough of those. Since the beginning of October, Monday through Friday, we have been featuring posts detailing our favorite albums of the decade. Now with less than two weeks left in the last year of the first decade of the new millennium we are ramping up–highlighting our absolute favorites.

When Heartbreaker opens with a light-hearted $5 bet on Morrissey and the bouncing testimony of youth “To Be Young,” it’s easy to think you might be strapping in for a loud joyride through Ryan Adams’ head. But you would be wrong, and there’s a quick giveaway that things are not as they initially appear. In that second track–the first song–Adams observes, “You were young and man you were sad / When you’re young, you get sad / When you’re young, you get sad, then you get high.” Fun as “To Be Young” might sound, it’s a preface to a down-tempo, emotionally fraught record. And it’s autobiographical allusions can’t be denied.

If you’ve been living in a soundless void for the past decade, then you’re probably the only person who isn’t at least marginally familiar with Adams’ substance abuse problems, inconsistent live performances and at times tense relationships among the band mates. In short, Adams was young. (The first Whiskeytown record debuted when he was shy of 21, and he had three LPs under his belt before his solo debut, Heartbreaker, at 25.) And just as any youth trying to work their way out in the world, he experienced moments of sadness. And for him, well, he decided to get high.

While narcotic moments aren’t explicitly present on Heartbreaker, save innocent reference (like above), confused, sensitive, nostalgic, self-deprecating and sometimes angry moments are. With a few exceptions, such as the defiant billy-blues “Shakedown on 9th Street,” Heartbreaker is a thoughtful, melancholy dissection of the experience, and it almost always stays true to its titular sentiment.

Allegedly a product of a painful breakup, the record is much more than the same old dreary cycle of “what is, what if, why” that we all carry out after gut-wrenching episodes. It does address some of those natural reactions, but it isn’t so specific that is separates the story from the audience. This isn’t simply Ryan Adams’ experience, even with “AMY” and “Oh, My Sweet Carolina” as personal reference points. This is a universal emotional decree, and any elements or names that feel distinct to Adams are really just symbolic of our own dizzying and sometimes frustrating onslaught of trying to figure things out.

The extremely painful “Come Pick Me Up” is a man–any man–who feels like he’s been chewed up and spit out and begs for it to happen again simply so he can “have” once more. He sees plainly a toxic relationship, but can’t get past the timeless struggle of loving something that’s bad for you. And it’s wearing him out. “Maybe you’ll rest some time,” he suggests with futility. “I wish I could,” he laments, knowing that his overwrought torment isn’t going anywhere. In slightly more defeated terms, he even admits as much to a friend, Sam, that he hasn’t ever had, nor preferred, joyful moments, but damn, Sam, he does love a woman that rains.

Adams has always had a way with words, and maybe as true artists go, it’s because of his affliction. Some years ago, legend had it that he had written or rough recorded a career’s worth of songs, a practice, like getting high, that probably felt cathartic. You’d assume that such an outpouring was responsible for Heartbreaker, a combination of pain and melancholy that so tragically and magnificently knows who we are in our meeker moments. His output since then has never quite matched in quality, and it’d be a shame if sobriety and marriage–positive things, to be sure–inhibited his creativity. But you listen to a masterpiece like Heartbreaker, and hope that that mythical catalog one day reveals itself. You hear his heart breaking and keep giving the guy a chance a decade later, the chance maybe he was looking for back then, the chance maybe we’ve all looked for at some point in our lives.   words/ j crosby

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19 thoughts on “Decade :: Ryan Adams, Heartbreaker (2000)

  1. A quick note: I’ve really enjoyed this series of essays — so many great records, and lots of wonderful writing.

    Happy Holidays.

  2. While I love Heartbreaker, I disagree about his output since not being the same in quality. Cold Roses, 29 and JCN I think are on par with Heartbreaker, and the unreleased Suicide Handbook and 48 Hours give it a run for it’s money as well.

  3. Without question one of this decade’s finest moments. This record never gets old, never feels anything less than what it always seemed to be and has never been diminished by his hot and cold work since. I had an ex who, while we were together, always wrinkled her nose at “Come Pick Me Up,” declaring openly that she didn’t care for it. A couple of years after we split, and a couple of broken hearts later for her, she told me that she finally got it. In a way, I hate that she did – but it was nice to know she could hear the brilliance in it like I did.

  4. YAWN

    Seems par for the course that Critics and fans hail Heartbreaker the masterpiece from which Adams will always be measured (and fall below). Truth is, the second half of this record is mostly a series of mood sketches, fleshed out acoustic dities and ‘ambient folk’. Which works wonderfully, in the context of the album but does not make a GREAT album. In fact, I’d contend that there are only a small handful of truely GREAT songs on Heartbreaker (Come Pick Me Up, Oh My Sweet Carolina, Winding Wheel), which sets the pattern for almost every Adams release thereafter (a bunch of stunners amongst a LOT of O.K). Truth is, Adams isn’t the song writing messiah his rabid fans think him to be, nor the musical dilletante his detractors accuse him of being. He’s simply a decent Artist writing decent music, and on the odd ocassion stumbling onto greatness (by perseverence or accident). And that dig at the end, hinting that his creativity was by virtue of his apparent self destructive tendencies (which he often derides as myth, and seems a ridiculous conceit if he really was pumping out a ‘careers worth’ of work – anyone who knows druggies, knows that a work ethic isnt top of the priority list), is just perpetuating a tired myth and pretty lazy journalism.

  5. Oh and for the record, let’s not beat around the bush here – the reason Adams future endevours will suck is not because the guy is married or the guy is ‘happy’ per say, it’s because he’s shacked up with an incredibly hot lady who just happens to make really awful music. And that influence will seep into his own work, because let’s face it – there’s only so many times you can lie to a hot chick by telling her the crappy poetry/music/art she creates is great before you start to believe it. I dont begrudge him for that either, hell I’ll do it myself if it gets me someone like Miss Moore!

  6. DAN – You sound every bit the failed artist as might try and belay the acclaim this record is given. Aka “hipster”. Fuck off.

    As for the influence, impact, and importance of the album, it probably does rank highesdt for most among Adams’s listeners. However, he is one of my favorite artists and I’d argue that Cold Roses and JCN were both on par, perhaps because they happened to really hit me when I was first delving in to his music. But regardless, the magical consistency of Heartbreaker may have never resurfaces, but it’s the “warts-and-all” feel of the 2005 trilogy that really endear them to me. Also, the takes on the Destroyer sessions, especially “Bartending Lines,” occasionally one-up the final output. Still a beautiful record and fitting addition to this series. Thanks for the words, the songs, and the memories, AD.

  7. Wow, love it! Not many artists can create such diverse and heartfelt opinions of his work as the DRA.

    Truth is that the answer lies somewhere between Dan and Jacobs words…probably. Even the man himself would I guess agree with both view points depending on the day of the week. To be contary>to change>to add>to subtract>to gain>to lose = lasting creativity…doesn’t it?

    As for the hiStory (or the fact of the creative matter) who knows why some one gets the whole shebang and others can be more aloof to his magpie charms. The truth is that this artists creative/career arc is the stuff of legend and when an artist has as much unreleased quality material as this one does, then when does it matter what/when/whose view point is correct and of any real value, and imporantly, whether that be in the moment or in revision.

    I think Keef was right when he declared that one song (take that as album) is only better than the next one because it always reminded them of the time they scored that hot chick…

    Meself. I prefer Destoyer (but I would say that wouldn’t I). Or is it 48 Hours, Darkbreaker, Pinkhearts or Cardinology?

    By the way what day of the week is it?

  8. Back when I first started writing for AD, I wrote a piece that talked about Adams’ chameleon tendencies. As much as I love this album, I don’t expect him to remake it. While my favorite Adams albums either tend more toward Heartbreaker‘s tone (29, Love is Hell) or lean more back into the loose vibe of Whiskeytown (Cold Roses), I don’t fault him for moving around within the constraints of his music. He is a notoriously inconsistent songwriter, but if Bob Pollard can make a career out of that same trait (and boy, has he), then I think Adams will (and has) done the same.

    But even Bob nails complete albums every so often and for me, Heartbreaker is unquestionably one of Adams’. The myth/story of his struggles with addiction and hidden career of work only adds to the story. As much as this goes against part of my better journalistic instincts, sometimes it’s better to just embrace the myth. The story is often much more interesting than the truth. Do we really care who wrote Shakespeare’s plays? All that matters is that they exist. Do we really care whether Adams’ was a prolific junkie? The music still exists. The facts are always interesting to know, but in the long run, I don’t know that they are essential.

  9. I must also disagree with the comment that Adams’ work since Heartbreaker hasn’t been of the same quality. Cold Roses, and in my mind Jacksonville City Nights are among his best, which have come after Heartbreaker.

  10. @Daniel, the Adams mythos–true or not, and *neither of us* knows–is as much a part of his music this decade as he is. And that “dig” at the end is exactly that, a mythology. Who said it was true? Think it was referred to as “legend.” We’re not writing in-depth features over here, but rather summations of music and people to reacquaint readers years later. (And it’s been an enjoyable exercise for us, as well.) In that way, mentioning those things is absolutely necessary. Lazy? I don’t know, but I definitely didn’t sweat writing this. Just hoping it offers people something to think about, whether they agree or disagree, and gives them a chance to listen to some tunes that might’ve collected dust. Anyway, if you don’t like it or prefer something else, no big whoop. That’s why we have opinions. But let’s also not be overly aggressive simply because we’re anti-populist.

  11. Right. Fair enough. Surely you appreciate a little contrarian view rather than a whole bunch of sychophantic comments to your piece though, yeah? I think your opinions were well written and well expressed, just happened to disagree with them for reasons stated above. Apologies if it came across as agressive, that was unintended. I read your site a lot, so something keeps me coming back, obviously. Just hope you don’t expect fawning replies to everything you write. Keep up the good work!

  12. He’s one of the few artists that I still listen to on a consistent basis. I love Heartbreaker and I think it stands alone from the rest of his catalog. I sometimes wonder what newborn fans think of his music when they pickup just a random cd of his and expect to hear New York, New York. I think Cardinology was a huge step off from his previous work, but he can still make good music. Drugs, married life, etc. It’s just a matter of how bad he wants to make that music. Same as with anyone pursuing a passion. How badly do you want it?

  13. I’ll always prefer Whiskeytown to Ryan’s solo bag of tricks, but Heartbreaker was most definitely the solo jam where he was firing on all cylinders. Hell of an album.

  14. one thing is being forgotten about the beauty of this album: it isn’t truly a solo effort. some of the best tracks (mentioned above by others) are supported and backed by some great artists; which, if memory serves correct, convinced mr. adams to record this album to begin with.

  15. Got hipped to DRA in ’03 by my son but didn’t get around to actually listening to it till about ’05 and since then he has been front and back, up and down, one of the most interesting artists that isn’t Pat Metheny or Wilco/Tweedy… Heartbreaker is a fine collection, but I’ll take Cold Roses, JCN, hell, even Easy Tiger to the deserted island before it if I had to choose… btw, his wife has a nice voice and just because her career didn’t cross the bridge from teen singer to adult stardom, she’s had far more success than any haters on this website thank you very much. He’s marching to his own drum and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

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