When he finds new ways to sonically and emotionally inhabit Taylor Swift’s songs, Ryan Adams turns 1989 from a thinkpiece into an actual album.
Look, I was always going to at least LIKE this album. Ryan Adams has long been one of my all-time-favorite songwriters, literally the person I’ve patterned my own songwriting upon. And as most people who know me can attest, I’m also firmly in Taylor Swift’s camp. After spending a year with 1989, I’m completely comfortable calling it one of the best pop albums of the decade. So a situation where one of my favorite artists covers an incredible musical achievement? Catnip.
It turns out that finding the intersection point between Ryan Adams and Taylor Swift is easier than you’d think: they both favor the song. When I wrote about 1989 in my EOTY wrap-up, I praised its “concise songwriting… designed for maximum impact at all times“. Swift has a gift for finding top-line melodies that don’t waste a single note, and works her team to build out what could be simple acoustic songs with inventive sonics that put the seven second rule to shame. That “what could be” is important—Adams, too, emphasizes this direct approach. Even at his most bombastic and ambitious (2001’s Gold, his best album), there’s a clarity of thought in his work that links him with the classic mode of songwriting. From Johnny Cash to Motown to Gershwin, it’s about celebrating the beauty in simplicity. Both Ryan Adams and Taylor Swift belong in this lineage.
So we’ve established that the intersection is important… but what about the album itself? Where does that lengthy preface leave us in relation to the latest 55 minutes of music from a career that’s given us thousands already? Besides the dozens of dull think pieces about how Adams’ covers legitimize Swift as a songwriter, how do you talk about Ryan Adams’ 1989? Should you?
In a way, no. I wish I could hear this album in a vacuum, but that’s the problem with covering the best-selling album of the decade (give or take an Adele). The success of any covers record rests on the performer’s ability to embody the song. Pair the right singer with the right song at the right time, and the result can be heartachingly brilliant. But while someone like Don Henley can cherry-pick cover songs for their emotional resonance, Adams has committed himself to doing the entirety of 1989, highs and lows. He has to invest meaning where he can find it.
He’s not always successful. Outside of its pop culture context, this certainly isn’t a challenging album, mining a vein between the MOR rock and alt country of Adams’ last two full lengths. Sometimes the melodic twists that he chooses feel too predictable, like the way “Blank Space” becomes a quiet confessional. Other times he simply sounds like he’s just turning in a serviceable coffeehouse cover, such as the album’s straightforward take on “Bad Blood”. It’s a no-win situation, really—for an album that’s going to live or die based on how much fans want to hear Ryan Adams sing these Taylor Swift songs, there’s bound to be moments that don’t live up to their full potential.
Luckily, a vast majority of these songs do find the pathos Adams is looking for. Unluckily, they do this by recontextualizing 1989 into a collection of songs about the singer’s recent divorce. There’s an inescapable tenderness to the way Adams sings here. Take “I Wish You Would”, where he whispers the early verses so mutedly it’s as if he’s muttering into a corner. Or spend sometime with the dreamlike plea of “Out of the Woods”, which somehow twists a driving electropop anthem into a six-minute protracted waltz, hollowing himself out through the very same repetition that made the original such an inescapable ear worm. Listen to how legitimately shook he sounds in “Shake It Off”, which becomes an “I’m On Fire” pastiche that I’m not sure anyone else in the world could pull off. Hell, two of my least favorite songs on Swift’s original album (“Welcome to New York” and “This Love”) take on entirely new skins under the care of Adams singing about the possibility of love in his life.
So ultimately for Ryan Adams’ 1989, like all the best covers, the true magic comes from variation. By putting so damn much himself into these songs, he creates something that’s more than just an alt country deluxe version of 2014’s best-selling pop record. And he’s not elevating them either: this is a translation, not a transfiguration. Haters gonna hate, but these songs feel as vital to Ryan as any of his own songs are to him or Taylor’s are to her. It’s classic songwriting, as clean as rainwater.
And it’s nice to see a Taylor Swift song on Spotify, even if she’s not the one singing it.
Favorite Tracks: “Out of the Woods”, “How You Get the Girl”, “I Wish You Would”