"The Very Essence Of A Break-Up Record": A Tribute To Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker

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For an artist as prolific in output as Ryan Adams, it’s hard to envisage any song holding its place in his setlist for a full fifteen years. In that time he has released fourteen further studio albums (three in the same year in 2005) and numerous side projects, live albums and tangential experiments. But it remains the case that, at his most recent UK show in July of this year, a quarter of the setlist was drawn from his debut album Heartbreaker, which turned fifteen this past weekend.

In 2000, it’s probably reasonable to assume that life was at a bit of a crossroads for Ryan Adams. The split with alt-country pioneers Whiskeytown and the delayed release of their final album left the singer at a bit of a loose end.

On a more personal level, the messy break-up of a relationship had convinced him that it was time to move out of New York and further south, back towards his roots in North Carolina. Never one to be idle (his supposed hiatus from music in the early part of this decade produced a book of poetry, a novel, numerous paintings…), space was booked at Woodland Studios in Nashville and oft-collaborator Ethan Johns was brought on board as producer. “It took 14 days.” says the note inside the record cover.

What resulted from those sessions are the fifteen tracks that we have come to know as Heartbreaker. It’s an album that could not really have any more appropriate title. Adams has since claimed that the title was inspired by a poster of Mariah Carey, wearing the word emblazoned across a t-shirt. Whether or not that story is true, the title couldn’t be better chosen. Heartbreaker is possibly the very essence of a break-up record: reflective, sad in places, but also full of references to what makes being in love so special in the first place. If you’ve ever been through the end of a relationship, you’ll find something here you recognise.

The album was primarily written in New York and exclusively recorded in Nashville, and it’s hard to separate it from the influence of those two cities. Come Pick Me Up, for example, begins with a harmonica solo that wouldn’t sound out of place in the glory days of country music and continues in that vein: employing a simple backbeat, banjo picking and beautiful harmonies with Kim Richey. The lyric, however, focuses on a very clear urban relationship, including references to walking downtown and gazing forlornly and pointlessly into shop windows (“With the windows clear and the mannequins eyes / Do they all look like mine?”). Following this song comes possibly the most reflective moment of the album, To Be The One, which muses on the two halves of a break-up, asking whether it’s harder to leave or be left. “The empty bottle, it misses you / And I’m the one it’s talking to” goes the refrain.

It would be hard to get through any look at this album without mentioning Oh My Sweet Carolina, a very firmly country-inflected love song featuring guest vocals from Emmylou Harris. A childhood hero for Adams, Emmylou provides a soaring harmony to this ballad, which was written in the backroom of Jesse Malin’s Niagara bar in New York. The song is full of homesick longing for Adams’ home state and contains the clearest reference to his need to move on from New York and everything that befell him there: “Up here in the city, feels like things are closing in / Sunset’s just my lightbulb burning out…”

Fifteen years on, revisiting the album is like catching up with an old friend (Music Writer’s Cliché #237). It’s instantly familiar and contains too many beautiful turns of phrase to chronicle here. Whilst the album is stripped bare (both lyrically and musically) and is for the most part a tour-de-force of introspection, it would be unfair not to mention the moments of levity and “ah, fuck it” that occasionally appear. The opening track (Argument with David Rawlings concerning Morrissey) delivers exactly what it says on the tin. Similarly, it is at once jarring and a pleasant relief to find the hard-rockin’ Shakedown on 9 Street thrown into the middle of the second side: sandwiched improbably between Why Do They Leave? and Don’t Ask For The Water.

Whilst Ryan Adams may have had many different incarnations down the intervening years (who can forget Werewolph and DJ Reggie?), it’s easy to see why songs from this album have retained a permanent place in his thinking and his live set.

Follow Tom on Twitter- @darthbrush