With his band stalled due to record company woes, the erstwhile frontman for North Carolina alt-country unit Whiskeytown has taken time out to record a solo album that fulfills his promise as a songwriter while moving in compelling new directions. Heartbreaker is a spare, earnest affair recorded over the course of two weeks in Nashville with producer Ethan Johns. Special guests like Emmylou Harris, Kim Richey, Gillian Welch, and David Rawlings all make appearances. But the focus is clearly on Adams, his weary voice, and his songs of loneliness and broken hearts.
The first song “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)” is reminiscent of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” It features nice harmonies and a melody that goes to unexpected places. It’s also one of the record’s only up-tempo numbers. The Byrds-y “My Winding Wheel” incorporates a nice, twangy guitar solo and a touch of organ. As on much of the rest of the album, Adams’ bone dry, nicotine-enhanced vocals are mixed right up front with little reverb or overdubbing.
“Oh My Sweet Carolina” is an album highlight. With Emmylou Harris providing backing vocals, Adams evokes the ghost of Gram Parsons and the lyrical sensibility of Paul Westerberg in a nicely building tale of wanderlust that turns to a longing for the things of home. “Bartering Lines” is a rustic ballad that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of Gillian Welch’s records. She adds banjo and vocals to the track.
“Come Pick Me Up” is a harmonica-drenched, Blood on the Tracks-style busted heart manifesto with one of the great choruses of the year: “Come pick me up/ Take me out/ Fuck me up/ Steal my records/ Screw all my friends/ They’re all full of shit/ With a smile on your face/ and then do it again.” Kim Richey provides backing vocals.
Occasionally, Adams use of metaphor gets away from him and the results can be awkward or pretentious. On “Damn, Sam (I Love a Woman that Rains),” he sings “Clear as a bell and sound as an old engineer/ With talented breezes that blow off your hat with a sneer.” But overall, Heartbreaker is an intimate, simply produced and arranged breath of fresh air. Despite the downbeat lyrical content, it’s clear that Adams is having a great time wallowing in his misery. The record is a fascinating glimpse into the art of a talented singer-songwriter. Its quiet, sad songs draw you closer to the stereo and draw you into its wistful, lonely world.
Bloodshot Records, 3039 W. Irving Park, Chicago, IL 60618-3538; http://www.bloodshootrecords.com/