If you’ll allow a departure from the fast-paced world of daily music blogging, and I know that you will, because you already saw that the Castle Clinton schedule was announced and you don’t need me to tell you about it again, and you already know that it’s 4/20 and you are completely capable of coming up with your own Top 12 Songs about Weed or whatever. So here, bear with me: to celebrate their 10th anniversary, the good people at Lost Highway Records are re-releasing 20 of their most notable albums on limited edition clear vinyl, one of which is Pneumonia by Whiskeytown, the band Ryan Adams fronted before he hit as a solo artist.
Originally intended to be the follow-up to their acclaimed 1997 album Strangers Almanac, Pneumonia was recorded in abandoned church in upstate New York in 1999. Before it was released, though, the band broke up and the record wound up sitting on a shelf until after Ryan Adams released his hugely successful solo debut, Heartbreaker, in 2000, also on Lost Highway. The label managed to secure the rights the following year, and Pneumonia was finally released.
Listening now, it’s a no-brainer to cite it as the perfect middle-ground in Adams’ career. It’s a substantial move away from the twangier, grittier alt-country of Whiskeytown’s earlier work, and it was still worlds away from wherever Adams has wound up as a solo artist, with his recent penchant for half-hearted genre-hopping. But there were also glimpses of what would eventually come: there’s a swing-for-the-fences quality to the production that would rear its head again on Gold a few years later, and there’s a playfulness to the arrangements and a strong-minded insistence that he need not be exactly the same artist he was the last time he was heard from.
The most striking thing about the album, given what followed it, is just how strong it is from start to finish. Adams has never really been able to put together an album without filler—even Heartbreaker has its share of skippable tracks, despite all the obvious highlights. He sounds focused throughout, and every song sounds fussed-over in all the best possible ways. The other thing about Pneumonia that I can’t quite get out of my head right now is how well it captures the two sides of Ryan Adams that have served as fodder for so much of his material. On “Sit and Listen to the Rain,” we get the sad, lonely, self-deprecation that always made his more boisterous public persona so tolerable: “Sit around, dream away the place I’m from/Used to feel so much now I just feel dumb/Could go out tonight, but I ain’t sure what for/Call a friend or two I don’t know anymore.” And then on “Bar Lights,” we see what happens when the same guy does find the energy to go out: “The bar lights and the liquor/And the way all the bottles they shine/Well I got five more dollars, drink another/You’ll feel fine.” Bad advice, sure, but sometimes just what you need to hear.