In 2000, the former lead singer of an alt-country band called Whiskeytown released his first solo album, to immediate praise. Of course, it’s hard to go wrong when you’ve got Gillian Welch and David Rawlings contributing, Glyn Johns’ son Ethan producing, and the likes of Emmylou Harris dropping in for a duet. Heartbreaker starts off with an argument—Adams bickering with Rawlings about which album a Morrissey song appeared on—before the twisted rockabilly twang of “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)” peels rubber all down the street. After that, the sound tends toward the acoustic side of things, but the variety in Johns’ producing doesn’t let it seem like an “unplugged” album. The songs are among Adams’ best—neither sappy nor overly introspective. Love, loss, and self are addressed, sometimes obliquely and sometimes simply, but always poetically. Heartbreaker became of one of Elton John’s favorite records, and it has a conciseness and consistency that several later issues would never find, for all their high points. Pax-Am’s deluxe reissue includes the original release, a disc of outtakes and demos, and a DVD.
The bonus disc starts with Adams and the Heartbreaker cast messing around with Morrissey’s “Hairdresser on Fire,” which leads into the argument that starts the album proper; it’s nice to hear, after all these years, where that came from. “To Be Young” is a stripped-down early take. There’s some good ol’ profane studio banter, then “Petal in a Rainstorm” complete with a “god-damned” false start; it’s a loping country song reminiscent of Whiskeytown, and it was wise to leave it off the original LP. Ryan and Emmylou talk guitars and then run through “Oh My Sweet Carolina”; the tempo feels a hair faster, and it seems a little less melancholy.
Hearing “Come Pick Me Up” with just guitar, vocals, harmonica, and drums, doesn’t add anything to the life of the song. “When the Rope Gets Tight” would end up on Jacksonville; this take is stark and forbidding, and it’s a reminder of how emotionally powerful Adams’ singing can be. The pre-album demo for “Bartering Lines” reminds you how bad he can sound when he overdoes things. Except for “War Horse” and “Locked Away” at the very end, the other pre-album demos are barely interesting.
The DVD is of a performance at the Mercury Lounge in New York City from October, 2000, a month after Heartbreaker came out. The lighting is unbelievably dim; the sound is generally clear but has a few touches of distortion. It’s just Adams and his guitar and harmonica. He’s compelling, and the songs mostly work in this stripped-down setting. Eight selections are from Heartbreaker. “Gimme Sunshine” would show up a few years later on Love Is Hell; “Just Like a Whore” (actually a decent little love song) has come out on some bootleg demos; and there’s the Oasis cover “Wonderwall.” The accompaniment on “To Be Young” has overtones of early blues during the verses, and it’s a fascinating version. As you’d expect, there’s some chaff in the extras, but this reissue is worth getting for moderate-to-rabid fans of the original.