CMJ New Music
"The Heartbreak Kid" by Scott Frampton
Ryan Adams is a charmer. "Coffee. A little bit of cream, no sugar because I'm already too sweet," he says to the angular waitress tracking the hotel bar like a stylus. His smile is quick and sincere. He knows it's a horseshit line and if he's at all self-conscious about it, it doesn't show.
Soon, his new record, Gold (Lost Highway), will be doing the charming for him. It's an old-fashioned double album, two vinyl disks joined by a gatefold sleeve-or, if you weigh convenience over romance, a 70-minute single CD. On it, Adams neatly executes a variety of closely grouped country-rock and pop styles, custom-fitting his voice with a range of hurt-boy's falsettos and lusty beautiful. It feels like a record you've heard before-not derivative so much as familiar, like you've made out to it a few times, or was it playing at that party where you were stoned and looking at that cutie across the room wondering, Why not you? Itís classic in that way, and it's going to make his current indie stardom into little more than an early-warning blip on the radar.
Right now, it's still fresh to him and he's excited about it.
"We're gonna put it out on vinyl because we think that's really cool," he says with reticent eye contact that's somewhere between distracted and wary. "It's gonna have four sides-the record feels like it has four sides. That was the point, we could've gone two discs but I was like, gosh, double vinyl record sounds so great, like Daydream Nation, Exile on Mainstreet, Zen Arcade, all these records."
He perks up at the mention of Swans' Children of God, a 1987 double album of Lower East Side art-noise renowned for its intensity: "That is a great, great record. They already let you have it by the first two, what's the first song? 'New Mind'? and then it went into 'In My Garden'. You're like, 'What the hell?' That record is so amazing."
Eye contact is easier to come by now, as his enthusiasm builds and sentences topple over one another, even upon returning to the subject after being interrupted by a call on his cell phone. "Oh my god, such feeling, such complete belief," he says, hopping a bit in his chair as he pulls his foot up under him. The striking thing-beyond someone usually associated with the alt-country diaspora enthusing about a band from the darkest corner of the 80'' New York underground-is how Adams is immediately more comfortable now that he's found a venue for his passion. Everything else is all bullshit details he'd just as soon blow off. But a good record, or an author he likes, or painting or his music, these have his full and sometimes rapturous attention. Which, it must be said, is pretty charming.
The venue he's most in need of at the moment, however, is one where he can smoke, so he suggests leaving his coffee order unfilled ("Wow, they sure are taking a long time with that") and heading up to his room.
Upstairs, the room has a view of the southwest corner of Manhattan, as well as muted Star Trek reruns on the TV, a neat pile of folded clothes on the desk and stacks of books and CDs. The entire room could also fit inside a UPS van. His guitar, an old one with a large Indianapolis Motor Speedway sticker across the bottom, stands by the bed. Once the lighter finally makes a conjugal visit to the cigarette, it's like a rock transient's still life.
The day is gloomy, with light streaks of rain giving character to the one large window and the streets are as wet as they always are in movies-a romantic's idea of Gotham. And Adams is a heart-on-sleeve guy, but not about New York just now. The weather would have to be a good deal darker to give the room the aspect of Heartbreaker, the 2000 solo disc he recorded in Nashville, still raw from the wreckage of the relationship he had when he last lived in this city.
"There were a bunch of reasons I went to Nashville-for professional and romantic rehabilitation. I just kind of had to get out of New York. I had been in the city for too long. It's no mystery, because of the way Heartbreaker sounds: I left a relationship, I left a lot of things behind. It just was I kind of needed to get out, and I needed to get away from everything and so I split."
Fresh from the breakup and a dissolving Whiskeytown, he went straight into the studio with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and producer Ethan Johns, who would later man the boards for Gold. Heartbreaker isn't ambitious, but it's a killer, with starkly rendered, mostly acoustic songs that more than befit the disc's title, and a sweet duet with fringe-country doyenne Emmylou Harris. Released on the Chicago "insurgent country" label Bloodshot, it became a sleeper hit amid a chorus of rock-critic hosannas.
"I had no idea," he admits. "I expected the thing to sell like, 3000 copies. I was thinking, like, my-career-is-over kinda stuff. And I wasn't bitter or anything, I was just kinda like, 'Oh well, whatever, I'm just gonna make little records from now on and it's gonna be fine'. You know, get a job or just go live in the South,' cause you can live in the South and make little records and have like a $500-a-month house and not have to worry about money if youíre touring. But I went to Europe and by the time I got back, it had blown up to a level that indie records donít, anymore anyway. It was pretty legitimate. Everyone was like 'Man, when you get back you're not gonna believe it.' I'm like, 'Oh, you're fuckin' with me, don't try and make me feel better.' Optimist that I am."
Returning to Nashville to find himself a hot commodity, his place empty of his former housemates, and tiring of a Music City seediness you won't see on CMT, he "kinda picked up and just said 'fuck it' and went to L.A. There he started work on Gold, originally as a thematic and stylistic follow-up to Heartbreaker, until the infamous Cali weather brought on a thaw.
"Something about getting up at like 11 o'clock and the sun is out every day, and you can walk outside and it's like really nice. . .it changed my personality some. It changed the shape of my new record. I had written a really dark record to follow Heartbreaker, as dark if not more dark. Roy Orbison-type dark. And I branched off. I decided I was gonna write songs about other people, make paintings about things I didn't know about, as opposed to just another record about me. There's a lot of that on that album."
And so, Gold's concept began to change and the double-album idea began to take hold, with the first couple of sides about New York, and a side each of Nashville and L.A. to follow. Eventually, the flow of the record demanded some songs be shifted around-with "La Cienega Just Smiled" as the fourth track, for example-but it still begins with "New York, New York" (not a cover) and ends with "Goodbye Hollywood Boulevard". In between are the perfectly lovely "When the Stars Go Blue", sweet up-tempo numbers like "Firecracker" and "Gonna Make You Love Me". And then there's "Rescue Blues", which survives a gospel chorus through the sheer force of lyrics like, "Everyone wants you to be special/Everyone wants you to be high" and "Harder Now That It's Over", a gentle song that will nonetheless tear out your beating heart and show it to you.
As for "Answering Bell". And its redolence of Tupelo Honey-ers Van Morrison, Adams half-spits, "Everybody says that, but I don't own any Van Morrison records. I was just trying to do some white-boy soul." If Adams is going to take any heat for this record, it's going to come from those who wanted another Heartbreaker, which even without his change of location and desperation, is something Adams has already done and is therefore categorically uninteresting to him. But Heartbreaker this isn't, and its full (while extraordinarily tasteful) production and occasional similarities to the work of classic-rock figures like Morrison, Bob Dylan and even the Who will make for easy targets. He's not in indieland anymore, and with that will come disappointment and backlash.
"Should I get ready for people to hate me? Hate my guts, say I suck?" he asks.
Maybe. People don't like it when you're not part of what they see as their world.
"Indie people? I never was in their world!"
But even he realizes what he's up against. "I was afraid [Gold] wouldn't be as good as Heartbreaker," he says. 'Heartbreaker is fucking rad. It's horribly sad. I listened to it the other night and I almost couldn't believe I'd made it.
"I'd say Gold is probably like my most romantic record ever,' he qualifies. 'It's like romance for every song, and the sadness factor dropped in lieu of like, I used lethargy really, more than sadness. More than just complete destroyed bullshit, I was more like, I'd want to make somebody feel sentimental just by the melody, just by the fact of it, so that like all of a sudden-maybe like how the Smiths' records feel-you're kind of like, 'Whoa, this is a weird place that feels like maybe the first time I've felt this way about something', or music that makes you feel really lost and misty for a second."
Gold is the record he wanted to make-at the time. "I was doing what was happening," he says of this particular confluence of his life in and out of the studio. "You know, a lot of it happened just naturally; some of it's just off the cuff. Literally minutes before I'd have written the song on a typewriter, I pass a Xerox copy of the lyrics around to everyone, they look at it and are like, 'Damn, this is good', and they all get behind their instruments and it's usually a first or second take. And it's like, 'There it is. Goddammit, this is shit-hot, right now this is what I'm feeling, this is just off the press'. If it's like, 'Well, I could've done the C-section better,' youíre like, 'Too late. The moment was there'. My voice was either there or not, if it was there half the song, then fine."
With so much dictated by the moment, if he were to record something tomorrow it would necessarily be different. But even this is superceded by his need, creatively, to move on. In fact, at the end of July, he finished a record that won't even fit in the same record-store bin as Gold, with his Nashville rock band the Pinkhearts. "It is sort of like, bleeding-heart rock 'n' roll," he explains. "Like, 'Fuck', you know? It's kind of like skateboarding: It just is what it is. It's not really like, 'Hey, look how serious I am'."
And then? "I want to make an acoustic record-like right after that-much in the vein of something like [Neil Young's] Harvest or something that's just brief, about one subject, teeters off a little bit, but it makes those songs more important. You don't have to fish through so much. Brevity is great-I didn't learn the art of like, wanting to accomplish that until just recently, and that's after I made this long-form record, I went 'Well, I never want to do this again, for a long time'."
That his description of that acoustic record sounds not too terribly different from Heartbreaker isn't a coincidence. In one sense, he's like a precocious kid, jumping from one idea to the next, and sine he's not exactly held back by the limits of his talent, no one's ever told him he couldn't. In that same way, he's patently less interested in something he knows he can do. But in another sense, Adams is like a farmer rotating his crops, rushing to make a record different from the one before to keep things fertile. He wants to make another record like Heartbreaker but shit, man, not right now. And as it stands, Gold is pretty great.
A few months later, on the phone from Nashville at the tail end of the Pinkhearts sessions, Adams is completely shagged out. He's exhausted from trying to record one album while promoting another, jumping out of the studio to do interviews and photo shoots. And again, he's waiting for hotel coffee.
Remembering when we last spoke, he says, "That was a fucking hell week, man. Hell week."
When it's suggested that his most recent solo show at Fez, a subterranean sit-down place close enough to the subway to rattle your minimum two drinks, was successful, that's he's developing into a raconteur whose story about single-handedly fucking up the debut of Hardee's chicken and biscuits (front page news in his North Carolina hometown) kept the crowd in the palm of his hand, even past 2 a.m. on a school night, it becomes clear that his exhaustion isnít just a consequence of professional ambitions.
"I don't know. I was finalizing some bullshit with somebody that week," he says, voice trailing. "I'll tell you what man, I'm about sick of some damn girls right now. Shit's fucked up."
He's groggy and hoarse; that spark is doused a bit. He makes it work for him, though. You want to get him his coffee and tell him not to wear his heart on his sleeve and maybe take some better care of himself because he's what, 26? Don't be a Byronic brat your whole life; you're too good at what you do. And with these thoughts come the realization that this is his professional ambition. This charm, that talent that even detractors have trouble denying, is all just Ryan to him. It's all a way of getting into situations where his passions can play out. This life is what he does, and you can't separate it from his music anymore than he can.