Whiskeytown: Pneumonia

Andrew Gilstrap



Label: Lost Highway
US Release Date: 2001-05-22

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.





A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.