Ryan Adams

album cover

Young, Sad, High = Songwriting Genius

In the years after this album established him as a solo performer on the rock and roll radar, Ryan Adams wrote hundreds of songs, and recorded them at a frenzied pace. In 2005 alone he issued three CDs, one of them a two-disc set. The overdrive hasn't helped Adams much commercially or critically—a recurring theme in reviews of his work is how much he could use an editor.

This set was recorded before the deluge. Its fourteen wry, introspective tunes stand in stark contrast to everything else in Adams's discography: It was made in a moment when every song wasn't just an exercise, but actually held significance for him. Part of that could be attributed to the circumstances of its creation. In the six months prior to the sessions, Adams broke up with a longtime girlfriend and dissolved his much-acclaimed band, Whiskeytown, after a series of notably erratic live performances. He immediately took to the road solo, and after several tours sought the help of singer-songwriter Gillian Welch and guitarist and singer David Rawlings. The three set up in a Nashville studio and knocked out the intimate Heartbreaker in two weeks.

Starting with the wise-beyond-years, medium-tempo ramble "To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)," Heartbreaker shows Adams getting comfortable in an impressive range of styles. There are country ballads that express a restless drifter's longing for home ("Oh My Sweet Carolina," a lustrous duet with Emmylou Harris), and slow rockers that express a more caustic view ("Come Pick Me Up," which is anchored by an unperturbed, almost jolly banjo). There's one brisk country fantasia ("My Winding Wheel") and songs of yearning ("Call Me on Your Way Back Home") that are made poignant by Adams's blown-apart-and-not-hiding-it delivery. The intimacy of the surroundings, and the lingering, long-distance ache Welch and Rawlings bring to the tracks, help make Heartbreaker's songs sound like unearthed classics. Though he later mastered the technical aspects of recording, Adams here communicates with a raw "you-are-there" urgency—he catches the essence of being young and high, sure of everything and nothing, enthralled with life's possibilities and at the same time drowning in an ocean of conflicting feelings. In other words, his heart's in here.

Genre: Rock
Released: 2000, Bloodshot
Key Tracks: "My Winding Wheel," "Oh My Sweet Carolina," "To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)"
Catalog Choice: Rock N Roll; Gold
Next Stop: The Jayhawks: Hollywood Town Hall
After That: Grant Lee Buffalo: Fuzzy
Book Page: 9

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#1 from Nick, Atlanta - 11/16/2008 8:56

Thanks for putting this one in. I am listening to the NPR All Songs show that goes through all the albums and thought I’d check it out. Heartbreaker is my favourite album of all time and you caputred the young/sad/high disposition perfectly. Thanks a heap.

#2 from Jonathan, Raleigh, NC - 12/27/2008 10:07

While it’s true that Heartbreaker has been followed by many more Ryan Adams albums it was hardly recorded “before the deluge” as he’s always turned out far more songs than could possibly be recorded and released. That aspect of his songwriting even predates his days in Whiskeytown. The answeringbell.com website goes a long way towards attempting to chronicle his output.

#3 from Erica - 05/17/2010 4:45

Ryan Adams is one of those rare talents that only comes around once in a lifetime…glad to see he made your list.  Has anyone else heard the jesus stole my girlfriend lyrics? That songs reminds me a lot of Mr. Adams’ writing style.

#4 from Jack Johnson, New York - 08/02/2010 3:51

I’ve recently fallen in love with the Ryan Adams songs “Shallow,” “Hotel Chelsea Nights,” and “Answering Bell.”  Does anyone know which Ryan Adams CDs I should purchase that sound closely to those?  Or are all of them just that good?

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