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"I think some people even think I'm joking when I tell them that I like Mariah Carey. I really like her records. They're so cool and fun. She's really fun, really sexy."

This isn't a sentiment you'd expect from a 26-year-old singer-songwriter who has been likened to rock icons Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Kurt Cobain. But indeed they are the words of former Whiskeytown frontman Ryan Adams, whose solo albums - last year's "Heartbreaker" and the new "Gold" - have been amassing heaps of praise from critics and other artists.

Billboard magazine said of "Heartbreaker": "Feeling so bad has never sounded so laceratingly good." Bonnie Raitt has called him "the it kid." Elton John deemed "Heartbreaker" the "most beautiful" album of last year. And Esquire magazine wrote that the rootsy, sometimes acoustic "Gold," released earlier this month, was "the record that would save country music if only it would listen."

Often such lofty assessments are associated with acts that are more pleasing to the intellect than the ear. But that's not the case with Adams, whose pained troubadour twang and emotionally direct lyrics have enough melancholy panache to deserve a mass audience. His ability to craft and deliver such nakedly personal tunes as "Heartbreakers' " "Why Do They Leave" and "In My Time of Need" is key to Adams' appeal. He renders his tales of romantic yearning and loneliness so earnestly that they have a comforting you-are-not-alone effect.

It's also remarkable how many of these songs he's able to write. In the past year, in addition to penning every cut on "Gold," the North Carolina-born 10th-grade dropout has recorded another solo set, as well as an album by his band the Pinkhearts, a punkish Replacementsesque outfit that he described affectionately to Rolling Stone as "his big, stupid rock band."

With all this material and the enthusiastic backing of his label Lost Highway, which is also home to alt-country critic's fave Lucinda Williams, Adams is prime for a breakthrough and "Gold" may be it.

The powerfully moving collection finds Adams on a musical coast-to-coast tour - starting with the relatively peppy opener "New York, New York" and ending with the spare piano-driven ballad "Goodnight, Hollywood Boulevard" - while reflecting on a recent breakup. "How'd I end up feeling so bad for such a little girl," he asks on the gently rocking "La Cienega Just Smiled." The Smiths-like "Somehow, Someday" finds him thinking about the relationship's unfulfilled potential ("I wish that you and I had those kids/maybe bought us that home"). And on the plaintive "Harder Now That It's Over," Adams suggests his pain isn't going to quickly fade away ("It's harder now that it's over/now that the cuffs are off/and you're free").

It's no wonder John once told Adams in parting, "Take care of that broken heart of yours." And it'll be no surprise if flocks of listeners soon find Ryan's sad tales helping them heal their own.


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