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Ryan Adams: Heartbreaker

Since Strangers Almanac, Whiskeytown's 1997 breakthrough album, the buzz surrounding lead man Ryan Adams has been one of career underachievement. The same critics that dubbed him the heir apparent to the Gram Parsons have berated Adams for a willingness to hide behind the glamour and mystery of his myriad influences. On Heartbreaker, however, alt-country's troubled son combines the emotion of '80s sad-rock, the songwriting talent of Bob Dylan, and the brooding charisma of Parsons himself with an innovation and a thoroughness that should permanently silence the doubters.

An epic retelling of the break-up that drove Adams from New York City to Nashville, Adams' first solo project is simply the best Americana-themed album since Vic Chesnutt's The Salesman and Bernadette. With a historical accuracy that few 25-year-olds possess, Adams sings of heartache with an ingenuity and tenderness reminiscent of his country and bluegrass forefathers. On "Oh My Sweet Carolina," for example, he teams with Emmylou Harris to spin a haunting tale of loneliness that resonates with the same sorrow that plagued Ralph Stanley in Appalachia and Townes Van Zandt in Texas.

Still, it is as an emblem of progress rather than as a history lesson that the album proves most successful. With a painful and feigned lightheartedness, Adams weaves alt-country sensibility a new set of mourning clothes. Lines such as "Come pick me up/Take me out/Fuck me up/Steal my records/Screw all my friends/Behind my back" typify a new strain of post-post-modern lovesickness—a lyric invention that will hopefully reinvigorate a stumbling No Depression subculture. Heartbreaker is certainly not without its miscues, but it is flawed in the same way that The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan was flawed: Adams' musicianship still has not caught up to his skills as a songwriter. As a result, the songs do not always convey the same freshness as the ideas and sentiments in which they are rooted. Heartbreaker begins with Adams and David Rawlings arguing over Morissey songs and then immediately moves into a honky-tonk jam à la Nashville Skyline. As much a product of the Smiths as Hank Williams, Adams finally turns decades of methodical listening into a sound that is all his own. (Bloodshot)

—Thomas Kane

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