There are a few albums that changed my personal trajectory when it came to music. The first and maybe the more important to me personally was Ryan Adams’ “Heartbreaker.” Growing up I was given a steady diet of 70′s classic rock. The first CD I ever purchased with my own money was Boston’s Greatest Hits. I have very distinct memories of hearing Led Zepplin for the first time with my Dad in the driver seat of his (eventually mine) Jeep Cherokee. And then came Deep Purple, Kansas and Chicago, as far as I was concerned if it didn’t have clean guitar solo and some heavy drums, I was not interested. All throughout high school I was a classic rock snob. I lightly ventured into what I discovered as “underground” or “alternative” with bands like Jimmy Eat World, Thursday and any other band from New Jersey at the time. Country and Folk were not something I entertained. It wasn’t worth my time. I didn’t understand it and I didn’t want to be associated with it.
But then, in college. I heard Heartbreaker. At the time, I couldn’t tell you what it was that I liked. I probably wouldn’t have called it country or folk or bluegrass (all of those terms made me queazy), I might have called it singer-songwriter. I mean Cat Stevens was a singer-songwriter, so it was OK. Slowly, my rock blingers came off and I was able to embrace the larger canon of music nut in the “Rock” section at FYE. Guys like, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Bob Dylan.
It was this album that did it for me and I want to try and really explore why.
Rock and Roll is many things, one thing it is not is intimate. Rock and roll needs to be listened to as loud as possible with the windows down experiencing it with everyone near by. Or in your room, with a set of huge speakers and anticipating that guitar solo that makes your hair stand up on it’s end. Rock is big, huge and I love it for that.
What Heartbreaker and Ryan Adams introduced me to is the one on one relationship that one could have with music. Adams lyrics speak to a very specific place in the emotional spectrum. I intentionally use the word spectrum because, in this album he seems to cover so much ground but in a deeply personal way.
According to this album’s Wikipedia page, this album was inspired by his recent break up with a music-industry publicist Ami Lombardi. You can feel the break up-ness of this album, but you also feel the history of country and bluegrass on this album. If you can consider Heartbreaker a break up album, it is very different than Bon Iver’s “For Emma, Forever Ago.” It doesn’t have the same distinct emotion that For Emma had.
If For Emma is what you write immediately after the break up, Heartbreaker is what you write a year later, when you had time to remember the good things too.
Here’s what high school Matt needed for a band to be considered a bond. 1. Lead Singer with energy and personality. 2. Lead Guitar player with brilliance masked by angst. 3. A quiet, thoughtful bass player. 4. A drummer with a minimum of 15 pieces. Nowhere in my mind was their room for a harmonica. When would there be time between all the solos? (Yes, Led Zepplin plays one, but I think as a highlight, not as a central part of a song)
I remember being struck by how slow each song felt. It almost crept along. a three minute song felt for me more like 7 or 8 minutes. However, the pace never felt boring. That is the most striking thing about this album and this genere of music (When it is done right) is handling the timing of a song. Often times, singer-songwriters, country and folk artists do so much with very little. The power instead of coming from the loud and intense solo but from the lyrics.
Adams and other’s in this genre are master’s at building the tension of the song. It seems to start of unassuming but by the 2:30 mark you feel like your heart might explode. The song above is a great example of that for me, especially the album version.
Growing lyrics were not something I spent a lot of time focusing on. If you listened to Classic Rock as much as I did you didn’t really need to. No one told you to listen to this clever turn of phrase in Tom Sayer by Rush. Most of time people were like, “No idea what he said but listen to Neil Peart go CRAAAZY!!” But, read this or if yu already own this album listen to this:
As a man I’ve never been much for talking to
I’m as open as the door in her house that leads to her room
And when the color goes out of my eyes she’s usually too
or the opening to “Oh My Sweet Carolina” with the sweet Emmy Lou Harris:
I went down to Houston
And I stopped in San Antone
I passed up the station for the bus
I was trying to find me something
But I wasn’t sure just what
Man I ended up with pockets full of dust
So I went on to Cleveland and I ended up insane
I bought a borrowed suit and learned to dance
I was spending money like the way it likes to rain
The honest contained in these lyrics floored me. I had never really listened to anything like this. I had however listened to bands ode to Highway Star’s, Aliens and Lord of the Rings. But, to so openly and honestly work through something like a break up was a new experience. Adams with his album captured something in this album. 12 years later it still holds strong against any other album of the same ilk.
If you are interested here are two reviews from the albums release in 2000.
I’m grateful I heard this album for the first time in my dorm room in 2003. Who knows, if I hadn’t I might be looking for weird b-sides of The Rolling Stones and no one wants that kind of music snob around.