Thursday, March 20, 2008

Ryan Adams: Heartbreaker

At first glance, you might think the album title, Heartbreaker, is a cocky self-description. After you give it a real listen, however, it becomes very evident that this is not the case. Instead, the title refers simply to the album itself - this shit'll make you cry. Whether it's the quiet acoustic nature of most of the songs, the weeping harmonica, or just the plaintive lyrics, Heartbreaker came from somewhere deep within Ryan. Even the 2 or 3 more up-tempo (possibly more listener-friendly) tracks on the album reveal themselves as heartbreakers in disguise once you unplug them and strip 'em down to their lyrics.

Speaking of lyrics - upon my in-depth listening sessions in preparation for this post, i was once again - but also more than ever - blown away by his words. It seems interesting to me that a (solo) debut from an artist can be their most lyrically profound album. Now, i know not everyone will agree with me there, but that's the beauty to music - it affects everyone differently. While i do think Ryan has grown and improved with each album, you have to admit that his debut, although not commercially successful, remains one of his best. Plus, its a little odd to do a back-review of an album having heard 8 years of the artist's more recent work, so i tried not to compare it with anything else of his and take it for what it is: a masterpiece.

So, that said, i've decided to review this album track-by-track with some live/unreleased versions of the songs. i tried to find live versions from around 2000 so they would be solo acoustics and not have been Cardinal-ified (not that that's a bad thing). i've also highlighted a line or two from each song that left me stunned:

1. Argument with David Rawlings Concerning Morrissey
While this track, which is exactly what it is titled, isn't very important to the album itself, it does give you an idea for the mood in the studio. i really enjoy when we get that sneak peak into some of the recording process. Plus, it often shows that the artists are really in there recording what they are playing and not just recording each track (track here meaning each instrument or piece of music/vocals) separately. I posted a song here that is another great example of this.
Helping Ryan on this disc was producer and multi-instrumentalist Ethan Johns and the dynamic duo of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. I could try to explain the studio process and the concepts for the album, by Ryan does it pretty well here:

mp3: Interview (1) on World Cafe - Philadelphia, PA - 9/28/00

2. mp3: To Be Young (Is to be Sad, Is to be High)
(from the World Cafe Interview)

i can't quite remember, but this song may have been the first time i heard Ryan. It was on the soundtrack to Old School and plays at the start of the movie. This is one of those more up-beat tracks on the album, and i love the fact the he begins with this one - as if to fool the listener into thinking they know what's to come.
The World Cafe Interview is one Ryan did just a few days after the album was released. There are some good, stripped down tracks and some interesting interview material. You can get the whole thing here.

No specific lyrics i wanna highlight, but in one of the interview tracks, Ryan is asked how the bridge came about in the song (if he took it from another song or something) beacuse it "comes out of nowhere". Ryan's response is simply "It's the one i thought should be in there". Nice.

3. mp3: My Winding Wheel
(from the World Cafe Interview)

I couldn't find it anywhere, but i've heard a clip of Ryan talking about his first encounter with Bobby D at a dinner at Elton John's house. Bob's one question to Ryan was, "so what the fuck is a winding wheel?"
Great guitar work on this version.

"precious little thing, with eyes that dance around without their clothes"

4. mp3: Amy
(from World Cafe Interview)

Although i don't know much about the real Amy, she definitely was/is a huge influence on Ryan. This tune exemplifies one my favorite subtle techniques - where the fingerpicking on the guitar follows the melody of the song. Ryan's a pro at this. Another good example is the bonus track on JCN, What Sin Replaces Love. Obviously not present on this acoustic version, one of my favorite parts on the album version of Amy is when that booming bass drum kicks in. It just adds to the already haunting quality of the song.

"i go to the places where we used to. i feel sad."

5. mp3: Oh My Sweet Carolina
(from Live at the KB - Malmo, Sweden - 11/6/00)

Wow. What a song. It's one of many tunes inspired by/written about Ryan's homeland of North Carolina. If you can get Emmylou Harris to sing on your debut album, you doing something right. One of the most sought-after backing vocalist/duet partner in the Americana scene, Emmylou has this angelic quality to her voice that transforms any song she touches. I think i might have to do a whole post on Emmylou's vocal additions to some of my favorite artists.

"up here in the city, feels like things are closing in. the sunset's just my lightbulb burning out"

"building newsprint boats, i raced to sewer mains"

6. mp3: Bartering Lines
(from The Destoyer Sessions)

The Destroyer Session is one of Ryan's unreleased albums that we will hopefully get in a box set soon (no news on the release of this sometime last year). Somewhere, though, i got a hold of this collection. The session was recorded with Gillian and Dave just a few days before Heartbreaker at Pilot Recording Studios in NYC . The session included some very cool still unreleased material (one of my all-time favorite tunes Poison & The Pain) as well as some tracks, like this one, that made the cut on subsequent albums. They did some real cool electric stuff with this song.

"leave it on the table, to somebody else the money's got a use"

7. mp3: Call Me on Your Way Back Home
(from Live at the Boardwalk - Sheffield, UK - 11/18/00)

On the studio version, the song breaks wide open after the second chorus with a string section as Ryan rips up the harmonica. This version from an awesome show in the UK obviously has no string section, but the harmonica is just as sorrowful.

"honey, i aint nothin' new"
"i was just a kid, bubble gum on my shoe"

8. mp3: Damn, Sam (I Love A Woman That Rains)
(from Live at the Boardwalk)

If you listen to the banter at the end of the last track, you'll learn that Ryan (at least he claims) wrote Damn, Sam a couple hours before playing that show in Sheffield. Not bad for curing some backstage boredom. I could almost highlight every line from this song, but here are the few that got me thinkin':

"i'm calm as a fruit stand in new york, and maybe as strange"
"i'm as open as a door in her house that leads to her room"

"clear as a bell, and sound as an old engineer"
- then he repeats the line as if to say, 'yeah, that's what i said. badass, huh?'

9. mp3: Come Pick Me Up
(from unknown live show)

i don't remember where i picked this track up, but most likely off Ryan says he wrote it the same day the recording was made. It's always interesting to see how artists transform and alter songs before they make it to an album.

Come Pick Me Up hits on an interesting topic for me. Often, i start to dislike songs that get too much attention or are overplayed - these are usually the first couple songs that i hear from an artist. As this song seemed to be one his most popular tunes off Heartbreaker, this was the case. In much the same way that bands fear "selling out" by becoming too popular, the same phenomenon can happen to a song. The truth is, however, that this track is badass. I realized this when listening to this live version; the crowd reacts to the song naturally (it's the first time they've heard it) and not with any preconceived notions as to what the song is - It's just Ryan telling a true story as literally as possible.

"i wrote this today. it probably sucks."
"try it [her bed] for sleepin' instead, maybe you'll rest sometime" - slut.

10. mp3: To Be The One
(from Live at the Exit/In - Nashville, TN - 10/28/99)

A pretty simple tune - at least dynamically - Ryan, his guitar and harmonica. But Ryan proves, once again, that sometimes simple is good. Real good. To me, this song sounds like a drunken confessional.

"while the things I do kill me, they just tell me to relax."
"the empty bottle, it misses you. but i'm the one it's talkin' to."

11. mp3: Why Do They Leave?
(from Live at Stubb's - Austin, TX - 3-16-00)

Probably the heartbreaking-est tune on the album.
Both on this live version and in the studio Ryan has Kim Richey backing him up on vocals. Download this whole show - you get some good stuff from Heartbreaker, some Whiskeytown, plus a couple super bonus finds:
- A (really) early version of Don't Fail Me Now. A song that didn't make an album until JCN - 5 years later.
- Allegedly 1 of 2 known performances of Goodbye, Honey - one of Ryan's rarest (and best) bonus tracks.

"simple cards and things. rose colored sunsets, no flowers from me."

12. mp3: Shakedown on 9th Street
(from Live at the Horseshoe Tavern - Toronto, ON - 9/26/00)

In the midst of all this sadness comes an electrified, groovin' rock tune. Somehow, under all that i guess it could be sad - i'm pretty sure Lucy dies, so.... The part of Lucy is played (sung) by Gillian Welch on the album cut.
It was kinda hard to find an acoustic version of this - The Cardinals play it all the time, however. Ryan does his best to imitate Gillan on this version.

"someone's gonna get it, ain't gonna be me"
"i was just gonna hit him but i'm gonna kill him now"

13. mp3: Don't Ask For The Water
(from Exile on Franklin Street)

Definitely one of my favorite obscure tunes from Ryan - by that i mean one that your casual RA fan wouldn't even remember. Simple but piercing lyrics set to meandering fingerpicking. One of a few tracks on this album that seethes with, not hate, but simply contempt toward a past lover.
Exile on Franklin Street is another one of those unreleased/unofficial albums. Recorded on a 4-track in early 2000 and produced by Van Alston, Ryan plays all the instruments on it (minus the string section, i'm guessing) - drums too (that's what he started out doing, you know?) He really took this song to another place on this version.

"down here in the sewer, i'm smellin' a rat"
"and what horses we rode, through what somber fields. with our lovers at war, and the dust on our heels."
"and her weapon of choice is a red-patterned dress"

14. mp3: In My Time of Need
(from The Destroyer Sessions)

The album cut starts with the creak of a chair as Ryan respositions himself and clams that "sitting on [his] foot is weird." Little things like this are what make albums cool. They're obviously not overproduced or constantly being over-dubbed - just the artists trying out a couple takes and using the best one. That's how albums are supposed to be recorded.
The song is loosely based on Ryan's interpretation of the life of an old man he met while recording an album in upstate New York (you can read all about it at AnsweringBell). From the sincerity and age-old wisdom in the lyrics, for a minute you believe that Ryan is like 78. This song was one of the first that made aware of the songwriting genius of Ryan Adams.

"work these hands to bleed, cause i got mouths to feed. and i got fifteen dollars hid above the stove."
"these old bones are worn. i've grown tiresome. and i know my time is surely gonna come."

15. mp3: Sweet Lil' Gal (23rd/1st)
(from Live at the Mountain Stage - Charleston, SC - 10/8/00)

A true piano ballad to top off this masterwork. Some thought definitely went into the track order and flow of this disc to make it a true, 2-sided album.
I actually like this live version better than the one on Heartbreaker. Superb vocals and i feel like you can hear the emotion come through a little better.

"steals my shirt, makes me hurt"
"steals my shirt, 23rd & 1st"

Buy Heartbreaker here (iTunes) or here (Amazon). Or better yet, get the real thing (vinyl) here (musicdirect).

Be sure to check out the

first installment of my multi-post Ryan Adams Artist Spotlight

Continue on to my Gold review.......


  1. Nice Post - I love alt takes on tunes.


  2. Thank you so much for this. It's incredible. I watched the Austin City Limits with Ryan. He played "Call Me on Your Way Back Home". I wasn't sure I was going to be able to find it.

  3. ah seriously, thank you so much. i'm on such a ryan kick, and what a find.

  4. Thank you! think I found me a spring 08 soundtrack

  5. Damn, I guess that I have to made a new list.... anyway thanks for share the interview and the track list.