The release of Whiskeytown’s Pneumonia, 15 years ago, was overshadowed by drama. It was recorded in 1999 by a band that barely resembled the one that released Faithless Street three years earlier. Due to record label disputes it sat on the shelf for two years, during which the band split up and members Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary both released solo albums, and was seemingly only released because fans had taken matters into their own hands and started bootlegging it. But once the backstory was out of the way, reviewers were faced with the problem of just what to call it. It certainly wasn’t alt-country, the way the band’s previous album, Stranger’s Almanac, firmly was. In fact, Pitchfork spent the first four paragraphs of its review contemplating the very nature of categorization just so as not to call it that. But if not that, what? Post-rock? Folk-ish? Recording-albums-in-a-barn-in-Woodstock-revival?
They should have asked me, because at 14 I could tell you exactly what it was: emo. And I mean that in the best way possible.
In the spring of 2001 I had broken up with my first boyfriend, a relationship that just barely fit the category. I chose him because he chose me, and after three weeks I realized there was nothing I liked about him besides his thinking I was worthy of kissing. I heartlessly dumped him over AOL, knowing it wasn’t right but terrified that nobody would ever take his place, that he was the last one who’d ever think there was something in me worth getting to know better.
Emo is about complicated, sometimes contradictory emotions. I wasn’t mature enough to think outside of an emotional binary. I was happy or sad, angry or peaceful. But when my mom put on the album that summer, in a car driving down the Jersey coast, the first line punched me in the chest. “Loving you / has gotten weird” introduced a whole other realm of possible relationships that I’d never considered. Not happiness, not sadness, but a stagnant ache that I realized I recognized but had never put a name to. “The Ballad of Carol Lynn” was about a woman the narrator no longer wanted to be with, because she was stubborn and spiteful. But she was a woman that was worth knowing in the first place.
I was hearing something familiar. Pneumonia has the confessional tone of the emo I was listening to at the time, the self-analyzation that spirals into selfishness, where you dive so far into your own head you can’t get out. “There’s a self-consciousness to it. The album feels like it’s as much about its own ambition as anything else,” wrote David Menconi in his book about frontman Adams. It was profoundly introspective, which is what makes emo so appealing, especially when you’re a teenager whose life until that point could only be described as “fine.” But Pneumonia’s scale was bigger. It wasn’t just dealing with love or betrayal, but the entirety of the emotional spectrum. And I wanted something to be emotional about. I wanted something to happen to me that was worthy of a breakdown. I wanted to look inside my own head and find something, anything, worth being introspective about.
Whiskeytown’s Pneumonia deals in the indicative mood, zooming in on specific emotions, spinning them around from all angles, but presenting them plainly. “Jacksonville Skyline” is introspective but factual, “The soldiers fill the hotels on the weekends” as obvious as “I was born in an abundance of inherited sadness.” There is no wishing or commanding, just an acceptance of what is and always will be. On “Sit & Listen To The Rain,” Adams looks at a before and after, not necessarily wistfully, just recognizing what has changed. “Sit around and dream away what I’ve become / Used to feel so much, now I just feel dumb.”
I was the “now” without the “used to.” In Pneumonia I saw despair and sadness and confusion and mournful acceptance, emotions no one exactly wants to have, but emotions that could only come from interesting and complicated people, which I was not. I saw feelings I didn’t have the capacity to feel yet. Nowhere did that become more apparent than in “Under Your Breath,” which starts so unassumingly it feels like Adams is whispering to you. In the first chorus he admits “Sometimes I wish I were deaf / Then I wouldn’t hear the words you say under your breath,” but by the second he changes it to “But I hear the words you say.” He leans into the pain of whatever she’s saying, unable to ignore it to save himself.
If there’s any hallmark of emo it’s to lionize the painful, and through that display a sort of inverted optimism. Things are bad because they were once good. You miss things and people and experiences because they are worthy of being missed. And it’s immature to associate pain and drama with some idea of realness, but as a teen, you have to start somewhere. I wanted the pain and heartbreak and despair, because I wanted to be enough of a person to have that happen to me. And in Pneumonia, I saw a life I didn’t necessarily want, but one where that could happen.
The album ends on my favorite type of song, an upbeat heartbreaker, “Bar Lights.” Adams and Cary harmonize over the last line, “I’ve got five more dollars/ that won’t make you mine,” the kind of line you sing at the top of your lungs with a smile on your face and tears in your eyes. Everything I could possibly feel existed in those words and that arrangement, and in Pneumonia, every feeling is a fact. By that point the band was already gone. Everything was already over. But that’s okay, because it could all exist.