That’s how a friend described Pneumonia to me. He said it as both a songwriter and as a listener, and my heart fairly leapt at the news because Whiskeytown has always walked the fine line between Rock’s Salvation and Talented Flame-outs. In Ryan Adams, you have a songwriter of unrivaled gifts, who can spew post-punk rage as easily as he can folkily lament the little deaths and pleasures of idling your life away. He enchants some, enrages others, and whether you think he’s a true poet of the heart or a stylistic dilettante, he seems to provide fuel for you either way. I’ll put my cards on the table right now and confess to being, as Erik Flanagan wrote in the latest No Depression, one of “the fans who wanted the band to be the next thing that mattered.”
But I’m no apologist, either. As much as I liked Faithless Street, I thought it was the addition of nine bonus tracks on the reissue that made it a great album. In fact, I’m still kind of bewildered that anyone could leave almost lost classics like “Desperate Ain’t Lonely”, “Empty Baseball Park”, or “Here’s to the Rest of the World” on the cutting room floor. As for Strangers Almanac, I thought that a fine batch of songs (“Sixteen Days”, “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight”) drowned like a sack of kittens in thick production. And I’m still coming to terms with Heartbreaker, Adams’ stylistic departure and solo debut.
For its part, Pneumonia was starting to become one of those mythical unreleased records like Springsteen’s electric version of Nebraska or Prince’s Black Album. The victim of label mergers and indifference, and maybe even Adams’ tendency to closet something once he’s perfected it, it finally sees the light of day three years after being completed, and almost as long since Adams disbanded Whiskeytown. It’s trimmed down from its original double-CD length to 14 cuts (plus one bonus secret track). Of course, Adams was able to return to Pneumonia, remix, re-sequence, and condense it with the knowledge that Whiskeytown as an entity might never get together again. That may account for a lot of the record’s meditations on leaving home, returning home, and the regrets in between.
It is reminiscent of another great, inconsistent band’s swansong, The Replacements’ All Shook Down. Like The ‘Mats, Whiskeytown was arguably a one-man show in Adams, with only vocalist/violinist Caitlin Cary appearing on all four albums, and both albums provide gentle closure to careers that had more than their fair share of chaos, spit, and vinegar. Paul Westerberg and Ryan Adams both exemplify our ideal of the young songwriter with an impossibly old soul, who already has the message in song, but is just waiting for us to catch up by accumulating the necessary heartbreak. Westerberg, however, used All Shook Down as his first solo venture, an act that pretty much caused the band’s demise and causes some blurring when you try to define where and when his solo career began. Adams disbanded Whiskeytown, recorded Heartbreaker, and then went back to pick up the scattered pieces of Whiskeytown, so Pneumonia holds a much clearer spot in his career.
As for the record itself, it’s surprisingly gentle, like the last breaths of a relationship ending on friendly terms. The arrangements are delicate and mostly acoustic, with Cary’s voice swaying in the background, and the production is clean and crisp. It’s not all sunshine and light, however. The opening cut, “The Ballad of Carol Lynn”, admits that “when you need someone to let you in / You can count me out.” “Don’t Wanna Know Why” follows, continuing the theme of being absent when needed. “Jacksonville Skyline”, with its claim that “I was born in an abundance of inherited sadness,” concerns leaving home at 16. Adams’ deliberate sequencing becomes more apparent when you pair this trio of leaving songs with the end of the album, where “My Hometown” fondly and humorously reminisces and “Bar Lights” finds a narrator with five dollars in his pocket and a willingness to just sit, accept, and try to score a phone number on his matchbook. If the album begins by leaving home and seeking its fortunes, it returns in the end not necessarily any sadder but definitely wiser.
Through it all, Adams focuses on his two main themes: loneliness and love. Or rather, love as the only cure for loneliness. Songs like “Sit & Listen to the Rain” strive to “sit around, dream away the place I’m from . . . what I’ve become” amidst mandolin, violin, and the record’s only real rock crescendo. Even the up-tempo, and decidedly poppy “Mirror, Mirror” (the only cut that replicates the feel of Heartbreaker), finds Adams singing, “tell me something ’bout what I saw in the face of the man who once felt it all.” The flip side comes in “Paper Moon”, a delicate love letter that could be the soundtrack for either a hayride or a gondola ride, and “Crazy About You”, a pretty straightforward declaration of affection. But this is primarily a record full of personal shadows, culminating in “What the Devil Wanted”. Lo-fi, scratchy, like a Tom Waits lullaby, Adams sings, “I sleep a sleep of wounded sheep, who jump the fence but are too weak.” It’s also possibly the only true successor to the title track of All Shook Down, where Westerberg channeled that world-weary whisper of the soul and truly confided himself to the listener.
Home as solace and refuge, relationships as paths out of emotional wildernesses. Ryan Adams isn’t the first to map these terrains, but he’s one of the best at it. These already poignant songs of goodbyes, brief interludes of happiness, and defeated returns take on even more impact as the band’s farewell. In places, it might even bring tears to your eyes.