Ryan Adams: Heartbreaker

Alt country wastrel goes it alone in the Apple.

RYAN ADAMS started a country band, he once sang, “because punk rock was too hard to sing”. He’s made a solo album because a heart’s too easy to break. Haunted and hurting, this is an album about love – expressing it, suffering from it, wanting to die without it – and that naked, human three-in-the-morning feeling when the empty bottle starts talking back to you and the difference between love and lone is no difference at all. “When you’re young you get sad, then you get high”, goes the affecting ‘To Be Young’; but where his legendary Keef-meets-Gram excesses gave Whiskeytown their blend of swagger and sorrow, here (the punkabilly ‘Shakedown On 9th Street’ aside) it’s mostly sorrow.

But, though quiet and spare (producer Ethan Johns subdues the backing band into hushed sympathisers), it’s impassioned, lyrically and melodically. Living in New York since the last Whiskeytown record until his recent departure for Nashville, Adams studied piano and composition, and it shows. New York shows too in the retro coffeehouse flavour of its early-Dylanesque folk and intense harmonica. Guests include Gillian Welch, Kim Richey and Emmylou Harris – the latter, the undisputed queen of heartbreak, making a Gram-style classic of the superb ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’.

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Ryan Adams talks to Sylvie Simmons.

Why a solo album?

There were a lot of reasons, but its inception was just plain living in New York City and having plenty of time to just sit by myself and kind of get into that solo guy guitar thing, where you try and make the song feel finished without thinking much about what a band might sound like on it. To be honest, the Whiskeytown torches were burning pretty low at that point – and have decidedly blown out since, at least for me. There are a lot of things I need to get to musically in the next couple of years, and I feel like that area I worked in with the band has been examined enough. In other words, no more Whiskeytown. However, there are a lot of recordings that could still be released, even after the fact.

You’ve had something of a reputation for self-destructiveness…

I don’t really see that in myself. I admittedly have a lot of fun down at the bar and I do whatever it is that late night people do, but I have a great time with it. I love life, and I mean that I love it hard.

It’s not a Keith Richards thing – well, maybe it is a little – it’s more like a Kerouac thing. I’m just happy to be out there feeling the things I do, loving the people who love me, and trying to figure out how the piano works when it hurts people. The good kind of hurt, I mean.

© Sylvie SimmonsMOJO, November 2000

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