It starts with a sigh; I'm talking about "Call Me on Your Way Back Home", the sixth song on Ryan Adams' first solo album. The sigh only lasts a second, and if the volumes too low your speakers are shitty it's not even audible, but it might just be my favorite moment in music.
It's funny I really, that my favorite moment in music should have nothing to do with music at all, yet still, it is my favorite moment, because in that single second, without singing a word a playing a note, Ryan Adams manages to expose the soul, the very essence of Heartbreaker. There's longing in that sigh, and loneliness and desperation and exhaustion and hope. And it's all amazing.
Maybe this shouldn't seem like that big of a deal, but if you know me you know that I believe there are very few artists, maybe none, who can truly compare to Ryan Adams. True, there are other bands and artists I love as much as Ryan Adams, but not for the same reasons, and the reasons why I love Ryan Adams are the reasons why I love music so much, so for me it is a big deal. It's a real big deal.
I hear that sigh, and I get this vision in my head: Ryan Adams, sitting the booth alone, guitar in hand, harmonica strapped around his neck, rocks glass filled with whiskey or bourbon or something like that, with a finger of the booze left in the glass and the ice cubes nearly melted down to nothing, but that's alright because he finished off his beer chaser with the last drink. His cigarette's burning in the ashtray on the table next to him, probably something full-flavored, maybe a Marlboro because for whatever reason the seem more "Southern" to me than Camels and he hadn't been out of the South long enough yet to shake off its' dirt to become urbane and smoke Nat Sherman's or even American Spirits. He's trying the steel up his nerve, not to do the song well but just to get through it without falling apart. The tape's rolling, it has been for 30 seconds, he knows because Ethan Johns told him when he hit record. He grabs his glass of whiskey, but puts it back down almost instantly; it's not going to help him now, maybe after the song's done he'll drink it...definitely after the song's done he'll drink it, but not now, not now. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breathe, and then let's out that sigh, the very one that's so important to me, and he starts playing.
At least some of these things are fiction, probably most of the things didn't happen, most likely all them are pure fantasy, but what I want to have happened and what actually happened are of little consequence, because in the end, that sigh is real, and that sigh says everything that Ryan Adams really needed to say on Heartbreaker.
That sigh, like the record's title, tells you all you need to know without ever listening to the music. It's sort of funny really, for a long time I assumed Heartbreaker was in reference to Adams (and there are reports that the album's title was actually just arbitrarily chosen), but the more I've listened to this record, the more I've come to realize that, arbitrary or not, the title couldn't be more apropos. With the exception of two or three songs (and even those are maybe debatable), these songs are heartbreaking. "Oh My Sweet Carolina", "To Be the One", "Come Pick Me Up", "Sweet Lil' Gal (23rd and 3rd)", "Why Do They Leave?", "Don't Ask for the Water", the aforementioned "Call Me on Your Way Back Home"; they're all songs about emptiness at its most admirable. For lack of a more articulate way of putting it, these songs are all so sad, and they make me sad when I listen to them, but that's always been a good thing because they're also so good that it makes feeling sad feel good. But in 2011, there's a new sadness, a deeper, more real sadness that goes along with listening to this record too.
Having been a little RA obsessed for the last decade, I've devoured and internalized all of the records and I've loved every minute of it. Ryan Adams has constantly shape-shifted and reinvented himself. He's grown as an artist, but over the course of a near decade of dealing with Lost Highway, expectant critics and fickle fans, he also grew jaded. It was hard to hear it as it was happening, the same way it's hard to notice the ways people change over time when you see them everyday. You don't really notice greying hair or slimming bellies or fattening bellies or wrinkling faces when you see someone every day. But when there's even a reasonably brief moment of separation, the reunion that follows can be a rude awakening.
And I've spent a decade without going all that long without listening to Ryan Adams. For the first 3 years after I heard Heartbreaker, I don't think I went more than a day without listening to a Ryan Adams album. There was a 4 year period where, even if I went a few days or even a week without listening to one of his records, I still listened to "So Alive" every day, because it is still one of the most perfect Rock songs of all time. From the second I listened to Heartbreaker, I've loved Ryan Adams' music and haven't really been able to separate myself from it. Even when I'm on a particularly strong jag with someone else, a Ryan Adams album still finds its way into the rotation. I haven't spent a whole lot of time without him. The result of that was being able to see the continuity throughout his catalog but not differences.
The fact that Ryan Adams was getting tired and growing cynical with music never occurred to me. I didn't notice what was happening. I was too involved, I couldn't see the forest for the trees. All I knew was Ryan Adams was making records and I loved each and every one of them...nothing else mattered. And still, I guess nothing else actually matters, but a week ago I put on Heartbreaker and it crushed me, partly because of just how brilliant it is, but mainly because it finally dawned on me that this record can never happen again.
Heartbreaker was written and recorded before Lost Highway tried to turn Ryan Adams into their cash-cow, before the critics decided this guy was the second fucking coming, and then decided he was just trying to be the second coming. It was before the Whiskeytown diehards hated him for making Gold, and before the Gold diehards hated him for making Rock N' Roll. It was before anyone even knew who he was, and before he was saddled with expectations so lofty that, in the eyes of fans, critics, and his label, he had no choice but to fall short. It was before cared so much about what they wanted him to do that they failed to see what he was doing. It was before all of the above poisoned the minds and hearts of non-believers against him, and prevented his records to be truly appreciated on the grand scale that they by all rights deserved to be.
Heartbreaker happened when he was still barely more than a kid, when he still had South Carolina soil clinging to the soles of his shoes, when he had nothing to prove to anyone, and as a result, proved everything to anyone who listened. It was a captured moment in time, it was a beginning, the start to a shockingly under-appreciated yet brilliant career, and if you listen close enough, you can hear all of that in a second-long sigh at the beginning of the sixth track on the record, and that sigh, that record, is magic. I really hope you have good speakers.