IT BEGINS WITH AN ARGUMENT. Surprisingly, Ryan Adams and his bandmate aren’t arguing about some dusty Gram Parsons track, but a Morrissey record. And, surprisingly, the fight doesn’t escalate to the bloody, bitter fallouts that characterised the career of Whiskeytown, Adams’ fêted alt-country outfit who drank and drugged their way across the US until their third and final album got suspended in record company limbo.
While there’s still the air of the dustbowl saloon curling about Heartbreaker, Adams is not just another collegiate hack donning ill-fitting cowboy garb. While too many have been fatally hypnotised by the romanticism of the Americana that inspires them, Adams takes sighing acoustic guitars and melancholic country melodies and strips them bare until all that remains are the stinging truths of the heart, and his own wise ruminations.
And he doesn’t limit himself to cowpoke balladry. Check the gorgeous ‘Amy’, a lushly orchestrated dip into gently psychedelic sweetness, or the reverb-laden rock-out of ‘Shakedown On 9th Street’. When Adams does kick it country style, as on the Emmylou Harris-guested ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’, it sounds vital, stricken, not in the least bit derivative.
Heartbreaker shuns mere retro, aiming instead for that more difficult quality, timelessness. And though it seems more a millstone than a compliment nowadays, Ryan Adams is a fine successor to Jeff Buckley’s throne as visionary rock troubadour.
© Stevie Chick, New Musical Express, 27 November 2000