Each week ahead of Splendour, we’re looking at a great album by one of the artists on the bill. This week, Tower of Song host Henry Wagons explains why it took him 15 years to appreciate a modern Americana classic.
I can still remember the day in early 2000 when my good friend and fervently enthusiastic music lover first played me Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker. As the jaunty, jangly intro to 'To Be Young (Is to be Sad, Is To Be High)' blared through the stereo, every rise and fall was accompanied with my friend's constant editorial:
“Man, check this bit out!!” followed by forceful air guitar. Twenty seconds later, “Woah, then this bit… pppfffffffffttt, DAAAAAANGGGGGG!!!” as he tried to sing along to Dave Rawling's blistering solo outro. “You like it? Man this is the best!!! Seriously, you NEED to get into this! Oh wait, check this out...BAAAAWAAAAAAAANG!!!” .
I tried to get him to stop, but there was so much love there, the noise was irrepressible.
Upon Heartbreaker's first release, I seemed to be surrounded by this kind of hubbub around every musical corner. At the time, I myself was a man who had just starting a twang-laden band, and I had so many people insisting I'd adore this beautiful twangy new album. Fair enough too, I guess.
I don't know if it’s just me, but when someone else tells you that you MUST like a record forcefully enough, well before you’ve had a chance to give it a good listen yourself, it can be hard to not turn into a Little Miss Contrary. I'm sorry to say, that happened with me and poor Ryan Adams' debut solo album. As a side note, I seem to remember it also happened to me with the TV series The Sopranos at the time too.
After a couple of false starts in my introduction to Heartbreaker, a couple of the songs did undeniably sink in back then. ’Come Pick Me Up’ was of particular note. I had to admit that song captured a unique honesty expressed by someone in the midst of brutal heartbreak: “Steal my records, screw all of my friends... and then do it again”.
But despite this, in my own mind, I never rated the full album anywhere near as much as I remember other people did at the time. I moved on to other records and musical journeys, always hoping to revisit Heartbreaker and give it the quiet attention it needed to decide for myself... one day.
I'm happy to say that moment finally came late one evening only a few weeks ago, while I was away from home, far from the Tower of Song, while reclining in an Adelaide high-rise hotel. In a moment of early naughties nostalgia, I put the record on, and gave Heartbreaker another go, some 15 years after its release.
I forgot that the album opens with Ryan Adams and David Rawlings having a stupid argument about Morrissey. A truly hilarious and bold way to kick things off. I was smiling already. 'To Be Young' is as much of a fun rollick as I remember in its heyday. Following this tune, the album then took a slow but gentle dive into some incredibly deft and sparse balladry. I was hearing songs I’d swear I've never heard before. 'Damn, Sam (I Love A Woman That Rains)' is an alt-country masterpiece. It’s a mildly redemptive touch in the midst of an ocean of heartbreak. 'Why Do They Always Leave?' beautifully cuts to the thick of the matter, in a way that can only be expressed by a truly broken man and an evocative writer.
Despite Heartbreaker's age, the album well and truly stands the test of time, vastly helped by its tasteful and sparse acoustic production, no doubt influenced by being recorded in Nashville’s Woodland Studios owned by stripped-back folk purists Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Against all odds and defying my old and irrational prejudices, I loved the album, a decade-and-a-half too late.
I left myself wondering, had I ever actually really listened to the album? In all my bluster and dismissiveness had I blocked it out? Either way, I was glad to be giving it the time and space it deserves. Heartbreaker is a true template for modern Americana that any songwriter should devote some quiet time to. Now, perhaps it’s time I finally go back and watch The Sopranos too…