Music Review: Ryan Adams’ “1989”

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The weird thing about this is, well, everything. It’s completely bizarre for a few reasons. Alt-country singer/indie rocker Ryan Adams has, to put it mildly, shied away from covers before. In fact, he once ended a show early by bringing up the house lights at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium (after unleashing a torrent of swears) when a fan yelled out a request for Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69.” Maybe it wasn’t the cover itself, maybe it was being confused with the guy who did that song for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but Adams’ (Ryan) extreme reactions has sort of gone part and parcel with the behavior of an interesting and talented musician who, truth be told, sounds a lot like what all music snobs would sound like if they could actually play an instrument. Ryan Adams is, in essence, a music fan’s musician. His music has never really appealed to the mainstream and it’s always had a very elevated sound to it.

Imagine the reaction of music snobs, vinyl junkies, and record store employees across the nation when Adams announced he’d be covering pop sensation Taylor Swift’s 1989.

(Photo credit: idolator.com)

(Photo credit: idolator.com)

While such news likely meant less-than-nothing to untold numbers of Swift fans, listeners of Adams’ music reacted with varying degrees of indignity. The hipster reaction (fans who own copies of Easy Tiger on vinyl but have never listened to it) was one of “This must be ironic with a high degree of kitsch so I should download this or, better yet, buy it on cassette tape.” My own initial reaction was morbid curiosity. Though I cannot say I am a fan of Taylor Swift or even very familiar with her catalogue, I do know this: 1989 is a good pop album. I don’t, per se, particularly like the album, because I’m not a fan of pop music in particular, but I have listened to this album on a car ride home from (of all places) Nashville with my wife (who is a Taylor Swift fan), and I feel qualified to say that it is a good pop album. Swift co-wrote the album with Jack Antonoff (fun.) and Ryan Tedder (OneRepublic) among others and she considers 1989 to be her first true pop record, moving wholly away from the country underpinnings of her previous material.

That being the place-setter, Adams’ version of 1989 sounded all the more intriguing when he told the Wall Street Journal that Swift’s album was one of “joy,” and that his decision to cover it began to develop after his divorce from Mandy Moore. He began recording the first few tracks around the holidays, a time he described as “lonely” for him, on a four-track cassette recorder with a style he has described as reminiscent of Springsteen’s melancholy Nebraska. In that same interview, Adams described the recording process, mostly done at night and completed in almost ten days, as therapeutic – singing someone else’s songs. Adams believes that he hit his mark with the final product: something he describes as being in between Springsteen’s Darkness at the Edge of Town and The Smith’s Meat is Murder.

The latter description is precisely Ryan Adams’ 1989.

The description is so precise, in fact, that it’s fair to say Ryan Adams stone-cold nailed 1989’s sound in that brief comparison. His cover of Taylor Swift’s fifth studio album, despite being by its very definition unoriginal, is highly creative and shows an unrivaled gift for interpretation. The opening track, “Welcome to New York,” is sung and arranged in such a way that listeners can hear what Adams heard when he first listening to the song: The Boss could’ve sung this… “Blank Space” is very much a track that sounds like Adams being himself, his own understated style pushing through arguably the most sing-along-ish and poppy track on Swift’s album, aside from “Shake It Off.”

“Shake It Off,” which will be the track most listeners pick to sample from this album, has a chord voicing and arrangement that, alongside Adams’ husky whisper, rings with a sonic similarity to “Racing in the Street” from the 1978 Springsteen album Adams cited as an influence on this project. The forlorn, narrative quality of his vocals feel much more like “On Fire” from 1985’s Born in the U.S.A. than anything Taylor Swift would produce. “I Know Places” is one of the album’s stronger tracks, as it is here that Adams has been, arguably, the most successful tucking Swift’s lyrics into a concoction of his own: a very Smiths-sounding track complete with Johnny Marr-ish harmonic, jangly guitars and the almost dissonant vocals, a la Morrisey.

Covering an entire album is a tricky endeavor. Good cover albums tend to occur when it’s done by a similar, or at least heavily influenced by, artist – Dwight Yoakam covering Buck Owens is one such example. Cross-genre covers are sometimes very successful, other times only partially successful (i.e. Shelby Lynne covering Dusty Springfield), and some are complete failures. Ryan Adams tackled a project that had very little chance to succeed. Taylor Swift fans probably wouldn’t notice it and the music geek community was apt to either hate it or, at best, take it as tongue-in-cheek filler. Remarkably, Adams has succeeded in producing the best cover album in recent memory – I am very hard-pressed to find one that even compares.

Adams saw enough in the lyrical content of Swift’s pop endeavor and, like a great artist should, took the road that had an overwhelming chance to fail. Musicians often talk about stretching themselves, expanding and experimenting, and it rarely happens [author’s note: read my review of Dan Auerbach’s side project for an example of “almost”] at the level we hear in 1989. Nine out of ten times, this type of reaching results in a comedic failure, but Adams has shown that his imagination, gift for arrangement, and musical sensibility are superior enough to conquer even the poppiest of the poppy.

(Slider image credit: RollingStone.com.)

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Matt Forster

Originally from Miami, FL, Matt graduated with a B.A. in History from Randolph-Macon College in 2004. He is the author of Perfect Dark, a musician, and an all-around strange person. He resides in Asheville, NC with his wife and two dogs. Follow him @Dalton_Forster

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