I’ve kicked this around for nearly two weeks, so I suppose it’s time to finally convert the thoughts into text. I would not call this an album review proper, but rather a few musings about Ryan Adams’ cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989.
Ryan Adams is no stranger to covering other people’s music. His set lists are peppered with songs from other artists. He recorded one of the greatest covers of all time, a song so good even the man who wrote it affirmed that it now belongs to Adams.
Still, it’s one thing to cover a song. It’s something else to take another artist’s entire album and cover it, front-to-back. But if you’re going to tackle that challenge, you might as well attempt to summit Everest. Regardless of quality, Adams’ effort to cover one of the biggest pop albums of the digital era – while it is still charting singles – is brash, audacious, ballsy, outrageous, etc. etc. etc. Depending on your view of the two artists involved, it could also be labelled as cynical, opportunistic, or straight thieving.
My quick review of Adams’ version is it’s very good. There are some huge high points. There are a couple songs I skip past. Whether it is coincidental or intentional, I find his versions of the songs that have not (yet) been released as singles by Swift to be the best. Where the originals are firmly rooted in the shiny, heavily produced pop of her birth year, Adams moves many of the songs back another 4–5 years and taps into the Heartland Rock sound he explored so well on his self-titled album from last year.
Two big things stuck out to me about Adams’ version:
1 – Perspective is everything in music.
Taylor Swift’s songs are about her romantic failures and insecurities. But when you spin her version of 1989, you’re not left feeling down, drained, or pessimistic. Throwing those lyrics over shimmery, synthesized pop changes the way we interpret her words. Yes, she’s been hurt. Yes, she wonders why her relationships don’t last, why she keeps making the same mistakes, why she can’t find The guy. But she’s also 25 and optimistic. For all those fears, she believes that, eventually, she will find the answers and happiness will follow.
Adding to these feelings are the subtext in so many of the songs. Taylor is often making fun of herself and her image, and offering light-hearted, yet pointed, rejoinders to those who have criticized her personal life. The emotions in the words are serious, but she’s reminding us not to take them too seriously.
When Adams sings these songs, though, the mood changes completely. It’s not just because he removes almost all the synthesizers and keeps the arrangements as simple guitar-organ-drum compositions. Or that he’s mimicking the sounds of The Boss, Bono, and Morrissey. The difference comes because he’s almost 41, newly divorced, and looking at the world from a completely different vantage point than Swift.
A breakup can be traumatic, but there’s also a fleeting nature about dating that allows you to move on quicker. Swift’s songs are ultimately optimistic about her future. Adams, dealing with the broader emotional scars a divorce leaves, sings these songs with a weariness and acceptance that his life is fundamentally changed. I don’t think he strips the songs of all their hopefulness, but he masks it behind the realization that even if he falls in love again, it’s never going to feel like it felt when we was 25.
Yes, the music is different. But the biggest contrasts in these albums comes from where each artist is in their life.
2 – Taylor Swift’s songs are amazing.
I outed myself as loving “Blank Space” earlier this year. Truth be told, I like an awful lot of Taylor’s 1989. It is filled with absolutely perfect, undeniable pop anthems. There’s no shame in liking them, regardless of what kind of music you generally listen to.
By recording his own muted versions, though, Adams shines a light on just how good her songs are. As I said, some of the impact of her lyrics gets lost in the production beneath the originals. The sense of triumph sometimes masks the pain inside her words. Adams instead focuses on the hurt at the heart of each song. And they still stand strong. The sign of a great song is one that can be recorded by different singers, in different styles, and yet the impact of the lyrics remains strong. That’s certainly the case here, with Adams tapping into a side of Swift’s songs that is not immediately obvious in the originals.
Since Adams’ 1989 came out, I’ve been listening to it a ton. I like it a lot, although I disagree with a few critics who say it’s his best album ever. I’ve also sprinkled in some liberal spins of Taylor’s original. I love the contrast in songs like “Out Of The Woods.” Swift’s original sounds like the best song Roxette never recorded, and could easily be the soundtrack for a girls’ night out. Adams’ song taps into his love for The Smiths and becomes a somber, tear-jerking epic. “All You Had To Do Was Stay,” “I Wish You Would,” and “Style” are equally excellent in very different ways. And Adams, to me, records stronger versions of “Welcome To New York” and “Wildest Dreams.”
If you can ignore the hype behind both albums, if you can get past the polarization both artists elicit among music critics, Adams has delivered a fantastic album. His versions stand up on their own. But he’s also opened a door for many of us who were afraid to fully embrace Swift’s music. And he’s shone a light on just how good of a writer she is.
(Adams performed “Bad Blood” and “Style” on The Daily Show last night. Go to the 14:00 mark if you want to skip the rest of the show.)
- I’m far from an Adams completist, but Love Is Hell and Ryan Adams are my favorites. And I CAN NOT WAIT for the double album he says is set for release next year. Where 1989 touched on his post-divorce feelings, that next album is going to wallow in them. And he’s always been at his best when he’s wallowing. ↩