I don’t think there has been a record that has been more central to N and my life together than “Heartbreaker”.
The day after our first date I went to New York for a long weekend. I stopped off at the (sadly soon to close) Other Records with a list of CDs to buy. This was still pre-download, vinyl revival and streaming and many US records weren’t getting to the UK quickly. Top of my list was “Heartbreaker” which had been receiving rave reviews in Uncut Magazine. I picked it up, brought it back to London and rest is history. It was the soundtrack for the first few years of our relationship, which is ironic considering it is a break up album. It got taped to play in cars, duplicated so that we had a copy in each of our flats (before we moved in together) and consequently it got lost, found and a little bit trashed due to overuse. The CD is scuffed and the inlay dogeared. We each know every word off by heart and you can’t say that about many albums in our collection. N loves telling the story of when she was playing “Come Pick Me Up” with the windows to her beat-up Rover car wound down in the summer in Wood Green and a couple of cool looking dudes gave her the thumbs up. I swear it was because she is gorgeous but she said – no, it was because of Ryan Adams. We both may be right.
The album has just been re-released as a mega boxset. I indulged myself and a copy has been recently delivered to BlackCountryRock Mansions. It’s a weighty old package – four pieces of vinyl plus a DVD and sleeve-notes from Ethan Johns, who produced the LP.
- Sides 1 to 4 – the original LP
- Sides 5 & 6 – tracks from the sessions
- Sides 7 & 8 – demos for the LP
- A DVD from the Mercury Lounge performance from 20 October 2000.
It is the 16th anniversary of the original release. Where did the time go?
Ryan at the time was just emerging from the break up of Whiskeytown. I’d been aware of a few of their tracks from cover CD’s from Uncut but the albums were all import only in the UK and therefore prohibitively expensive.
Ryan had moved from New York back to his old home in Carolina. He had broken up with his publicist/girlfriend Amy Lombardi (she gets her own song on the album). He was broke and homeless. He headed up to Nashville to record the LP, acutely aware that he was drinking heavily in the last chance saloon for his career. Looking back he says:
“I felt at the time that I needed to say goodbye to my career. There wasn’t anybody really looking for me.I was fully humbled and prepared to sort of go, ‘OK, I had my shot and it was over,’
“I had no furniture; I had no clothes; I had a very small amount of things. There were no lamps in the house but one – I didn’t have a shade on it. It had luckily been left there. So I would just plug that in at night so I could see to get into the room I slept in.”
He arrived at the title whilst lying in his room, chatting to his record company and looking at a Mariah Carey photo.
Ryan suggested the title whilst looking at Mariah’s T-shirt and guess what – it worked for the bottom of the emotional pit that he was in at the time.
So he went from this down at heel situation to globally acclaimed record of the year in a matter of months. It was a stellar rise. How did happen? Via a combination of quality, five star reviews and superstar advocacy, that’s how.
Is the reissue worth it? Well emotionally for me, a resounding yes. I haven’t tired of the record in the 16 years since it was released. It still holds together as a magical LP. Ryan was at the top of his game and the intimacy of the material is matched by the wonderful playing and production. It really is a special record.
Are the extras worth bothering with? Here’s what I think:
The Heartbreaker Sessions
Hairdresser On Fire Jam
Ryan has always had a predilection for cover versions and equally has always been a Smiths fan. There’s a faithful version of “The Headmaster Ritual” on Youtube. “Hairdresser” was a b-side of Morrissey’s debut single “Suedehead”. Its primary relevance to “Heartbreaker” is that it is the song that caused the “Argument With David Rawlings About Morrissey” which is the snatch of conversation that opened the album. In the UK, it appeared on the odds and sods album “Bona Drag” rather than Morrissey’s debut “Viva Hate”. Ryan had met David Rawlings and Gillian Welch at a Gram Parsons tribute show along with Emmylou Harris. When Ryan moved down to Nashville, he invited all three of them to hang out and play together.
Ryan’s version is what it says. It’s a jam and it leads into what was effectively the first track on Heartbreaker which is –
To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)
This is the rockabilly opener that set the momentum for the rest of LP. Without this it would have been an slow paced set of weepies. Instead, the rock’n’roll kicks the pace along but still slips in a bittersweet middle eight. Ironically, David Rawlings later covered the song on the first album he recorded as a leader away from Gillian Welch.
I’m not entirely certain what the difference is between this version and the one that is on the original but, hey, at least we’ve cleared up what the argument is about (if you cared – which I kind of did).
Petal In A Rainstorm
This song reappeared eleven years later on a flexidisc which accompanied the initial orders of the “Ashes and Fire” album. This isn’t an entirely unexpected link. “Ashes” was another “Is Ryan back to the heights of Heartbreaker?” album. We saw him at the London Palladium in 2012 and I have to say it was the best we had seen him since the “Heartbreaker” tour. He was performing solo with a guitar and piano. It just didn’t quite have that spark and intimacy of the first gig we saw, which I think was the first solo gig in London (more of that later) but was still a good night out.
“Petal” is a (relatively) lively paced number that could have quite easily sat on the “Gold” album, somewhat akin to “Firecracker”. It opens with Ryan imploring the band and chugs along nicely:
Everybody play for your lives. Let’s just beat the shit out of this thing
This is Ryan fingerpicking in Neil Young “Sugar Mountain” mode, rhyming “promenade” with “lemonade”. It is a very pretty song but you wouldn’t swap any of the similarly paced songs on “Heartbreaker” for it.
Oh My Sweet Carolina
We’re back with an alternate take here. Confession time – I did a cover version of this song at a Tsunami charity gig a few years ago. I was nervous and therefore had the lyrics on a piece of paper on a music stand in front of me. As I got further on in the song, the shorter the stand got to the point it collapsed completely. N reassures me that I did it justice, but I’m not so sure.
He wrote the song as an affectionate view of his roots and his grandparents in particular.
At the time Elton John was really talking up Ryan, handing out copies of “Heartbreaker” to his friends. Elton has a real ear for new talent and his albums in recent years have had a real Americana side to them, harking back to the days of “Tumbleweed Connection”. Here’s a video of Elton doing a cover of the song. The high esteem in which he holds it is evident.
According to Ethan Johns, Elton claimed that Heartbreaker revised his career. “I read that and glowed like the sun” said Johns and so he should.
Come Pick Me Up
I would suggest that this is an outtake rather than alternate take. It was more raw than the original and offered something different.
I was with it until 2/3 of the way through and then Ryan decides the way to end this lovelorn lyrically superb country rock track by treating the last 1/3 as a punk thrash. It ends up just illustrating the self destructive streak that has been ever present throughout Ryan’s solo career that isn’t particularly endearing.
The track had been released as a RSD 7″ single a few years ago. I didn’t buy it then and I’m glad I didn’t. However the demo version that appears later on the boxset is much more approachable with a banjo playing through the chorus. This unsullied version is one of the highlights of the LP. It captures Ryan’s bitterness that the relationship has ended but it reveals his vulnerability. If Amy had knocked on his door, well he might just have opened it.
It’s a punk jam.
When The Rope Gets Tight (Alternate Take and Outtake)
We get the same song twice in a row. This had been the b-side to the aforementioned RSD release and is alternate version of “Don’t Fail Me Now” which was the final track on “Jacksonville City Nights”. This was the country album of the three records that released in 2005 and was a very good album as was “Cold Roses” from that year.
The first version is a run through as a Sun Studio rock’n’roll number with Gillian and Dave, a slight but jaunty little thing. The second version is dark and brooding again with his pals. The song is transformed and this one is a keeper, another candidate for “Heartbreaker” possibly replacing the album’s most obvious number “Why Do They Leave.” My god though, this would have really made the final ghostly run for home at the end of the record into a deathly crawl.
A true breakup song, the split had “been a long time coming” according to Ryan who suggests that Amy should take all of his money. He finishes with a Hank Williams falsetto stating that he won’t miss her.
He’d got it bad.
Unsurprisingly, the Demos are rawer versions of the “Heartbreaker Tracks”. The highlights are as follows:
This is a really interesting alternative. It starts out feeling like a Gillian Welch/Dave Rawlings track until Ryan starts harmonising with himself and a wheezing electronic keyboard comes in. It wasn’t right to go on “Heartbreaker” in this demo form but would have fitted perfectly onto either one of the subsequent “Love Is Hell” EP’s.
Don’t Ask For The Water
This is another very different treatment, sounding like something off the third Velvet Underground LP before a string section comes in on the coda. Again, it wasn’t right in this setting for the original album, but is fascinating to hear another one of Ryan’s ideas.
In My Time Of Need
This is gorgeous. Even more intimate than the LP version, longer with more verses and I think I may prefer the demo. An absolutely beautiful song with a tender vocal performance from Ryan.
Will you comfort me in my time of need?
Can you take away the pain of hurtful deeds?
‘Cause I will comfort you when my days are through
And Ill let your smile just off and carry me
This is another song that has not seen the light of day. A very simple song that would have made it onto any number of Ryan Adams, especially with the Cardinals, especially “Cold Roses”. It has a lovely circular 12 string guitar riff with a double tracked lead vocal. It shows how much Ryan had absorbed from the Smiths too.
Live at the Mercury Lounge
Now this is well worth a watch. As we mentioned earlier, we saw Ryan in Hammersmith six months or so after “Heartbreaker” was released. It was a Sunday night and Ryan had obviously had a well lubricated Saturday night. He staggered on with an acoustic guitar in one hand and a bottle of red wine in the other. We thought we were in for a rough ride. Ryan complained about his hangover and then proceeded to play a stunning solo set, disarming the theatre with a genuine desire to connect between the songs.
It was a tour de force. He introduced songs that remain unreleased to this day. I was thinking that the Deluxe Edition would feature some of these songs but doesn’t. How big is Ryan’s vault? Gold was to be released with six months of the gig and featured a fully realised big rock band sound. Yet the gig featured only one song that would end up on “Gold”, “Touch, Feel and Lose”.
Back to the DVD in the box set. It is Ryan and his guitar and is shot by a single static camera that zoomed in and out on the singer. It is obscured by the audience at times and visually probably isn’t even cameraphone quality. The music is something else though. Beautifully recorded, this is as we remembered Ryan from the Hammersmith gig. He’s chatty but still edgy. He plays acoustic guitar like a dream and sings like an angel. When people ask what the fuss is about, this is exhibit A for why Ryan is so highly rated. Ryan does his version of “Wonderwall” which way outstrips what those two muppets from Manchester pulled off.
Ryan can be hit and miss live affair. We saw him play Shepherd’s Bush Empire promoting “Gold” and he ruined every other song with a Clarence Clemons style sax solo. We then saw him play Brixton and he was beyond surly. He had his back to the audience for most of the gig. He briefly sparked into life for a cover of “Last Nite” by the Strokes and then he was back to moody Ryan. It was an evening where we all wondered why do we bother.
Then you remember – “Heartbreaker”.
Here’s the setlist for the Hammersmith gig by the way.
Listening again to “Heartbreaker” has reinforced what made it so memorable and special for us. Considering the album is mostly downbeat, the sheer quality and beauty of the material pulls it through. There are only two numbers on the LP which could be considered rockers. One’s at the start and the other doesn’t arrive until almost the very end (“Shakedown on 9th Street”), yet there is no dip. And you don’t feel suicidal at the end of it, you just feel that you have been party to something that for me is up there with “Blood On The Tracks” in terms of depicting the unravelling of a relationship. It really is that good.
The album has not lost its allure and the reissue really does it justice. There are some truly wonderful tracks which I haven’t mentioned. “Winding Wheel” is a personal favourite and with its alternate tuning, a real pleasure to pick away at on the guitar. Lyrically it is one of his best:
Buy a pretty dress
Wear it out tonight
For anyone you think could outdo me
Better still be my Winding Wheel
Here’s a glorious full band version from a BBC4 concert from St Lukes church in London. Just wonderful.
So if you haven’t got “Heartbreaker” in your life, I would unreservedly recommend it. It really is one of my favourite LPs and neither time nor familiarity has dimmed its appeal.
And you can’t say that about many records.
I love and admire how beautifully you write about someone whom I admire and love so much