Ryan Adams might just be one of the only “new” artists my dad’s introduced me to since I turned 13. He was really into the single “New York, New York” and its parent album Gold for quite a while, and I remember enjoying tracks like “When The Stars Go Blue” and “Goodnight Hollywood Blvd” when I realised that Ryan wasn’t in any way related to Bryan and decided to finally give Gold a listen. While not quite as raw as anything on Heartbreaker, the fact I preferred those slow, sad songs (surely there’s a pattern to my taste emerging here?) was a good indication that I’d fall in love with this record. And, thanks to a friend at university who badgered me into getting it, I did.
Heartbreaker starts deceptively, with a chirpy snippet of a discussion about Morrissey before kicking off with upbeat rocker “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)”. However, the lyrics and chorus of that song, and pretty much everything that comes after ensure the album lives up to its title. There are songs on here that are truly heartbreaking.
There are very few genres that do lost love as well as country music, and there are times on Heartbreaker where Adams really does sound like he’s singing into the bottom of a whiskey glass in a Tennessee dive bar. “Oh My Sweet Carolina”‘s slowly picked guitars, Emmylou Harris harmonies and lonely traveller lyrics mean it is probably the most traditionally country sounding song on the album. It’s also one of the saddest, though “In My Time Of Need”, “Come Pick Me Up” and “Why Do They Leave?” give it a run for its money.
Heartbreaker was apparently written after Adams’ break-up with a music publicist called Amy Lombardi, so it’s no surprise that “Amy” is the most lyrically direct song on here. With its Beatles-like fingerpicking and lyrics like “I don’t know why I let go, I want to be your friend” and “I love you Amy, do you still love me?”, it’s clear that Adams regrets the breakup and wants the world to know he’s sorry for what’s happened. Its directness and simplicity make it the prettiest thing on here.
“Amy” is just one song where Adams successfully branches out from his comfort zone, with “Sweet Lil Gal (23rd/1st)” showcasing the piano and reverb-heavy direction he would explore further on Love Is Hell, but he never ventures very far. Banjos, harmonicas and sweet harmonies crop up on many of the tracks, but Heartbreaker never veers off into pastiche territory. The songs are all too good for that.
Heartbreaker is the perfect introduction to alt. country, but it’s much more than that. It’s one of those records that’s so good, it transcends its genre and has rightly become a classic. It’s his best album by a country mile.