When Ryan Adams announced that he would cover Taylor Swift’s 1989 in its entirety, I have to admit that I was a little perplexed. 1989 is arguably the shiniest pop token from 2014 with anthems that female teenagers (and models, males of every age, moms and roughly 5 million other people) sing along to as they play every 30 minutes on the radio. Hearing that Adams would cover Bad Blood felt a lot like watching that guy in the garage band with long hair, worn vans and blistered fingers embrace the prom queen with unfeigned sincerity[i]. As a longtime fan of Adams and an occasionally unapologetic singer of Taylor Swift ballads, I was largely intrigued to see how these pop songs would sound in Adam’s capable hands[ii]. Admittedly, I am that jerk who’s never listened to all of Swift's 1989. I thought about giving a full listen before delving into Adams' unironic tribute, but I abstained to see how these pop songs would metamorphose into his alternative, heartland style.
Bad Blood was the first song released and it was refreshing to hear this silvery-produced anthem stripped down to sound more like Tom Petty than anything that would make the Top 40 these days. Wildest Dreams left behind the synth-pop orchestra for a guitar lead that sounds like it could have come straight from last year’s self-titled album, Ryan Adams. Blank Space is sparse and supplicating and could rest against the other songs of Love Is Hell. But mostly, it seems that Adams went right back to 80’s rock to find his own take on 1989—a record that could have come from exactly when it says it did. For her influence, Swift sites Adams as an inspiration for her own writing. Under close scrutiny, I’m not sure all the lyrics hold up against the melancholy that Adams adds to the album, but the earnest lack of restraint in the storytelling feels related to Adams’ writing in a way that works[iii].
No one could ever say Taylor’s songs are impersonal. It’s clear that she leaves everything on the page, and many of her ex-lovers (is it really not Starbucks lovers?) might recognize themselves as characters in her next music video. But it often feels like she romanticizes some distant past that she didn’t experience. In the hands of Adams the nostalgia is laid bare; the sounds are wearied and mature and the lyrics provide a gut-kick that doesn’t translate in Swift’s production. Perhaps that’s just the way that time has its way with memorializing heartbreak: Swift was just 11 when Adam’s Heartbreak was released; Adams was 15 when Swift was born in 1989. “When you’re young, you run. But you come back to what you need.” When you’re older, you have no where else to go but back to the sinking ship. It’s the songs that have him wrestling with the same loss we’ve heard him tackle in the past that I continue to come back to: Out of the Woods, How You Get the Girl, and the previously quoted This Love.
Today Ryan Adams is trending on Twitter alongside the Emmy winners and all the other Monday morning “trends” that surprise and ruin us all. The softness of an unlikely singer-songwriter paired against the brutish glare of pop culture’s blindness; but somehow he doesn’t seem out of place here. Perhaps it’s the comfort and ease with which he reaches across genre and fanbases to rework the album of one of most iconic pop stars of this era. It’s a space where he seems rather secure, surprisingly or not[iv]. Either way, Swift fans get a fresh perspective on her album and hopefully a chance to dig into Adams' great catalogue, and longtime Adams’ fans can perhaps understand what was there all along in 1989 that we didn’t hear until it was reimagined for us. It’s am embrace we least expected, but the fact that it might defy a single expectation about "popular" (and alternative) music is a triumph for today. Are we out of the woods? Certainly not yet; but I can see the light from here.
[i] We broke this cultural stereotype long ago (or at least I hoped we did), but watch any music awards show these days and you’ll remember just what sort of strange sadness built the hierarchy of high school popularity and how that overflows into music today.
[ii] He’s been preparing us for a cover record since Wonderwall.
[iii] Think of the pleading uncertainty of Come Pick Me Up on Heartbreaker, minus the harmonica. Because thinking of Taylor Swift with a harmonica is too much for me to process today.
[iv] After all, up until recently he was married to a former pop star. I suppose if you don’t want to write your own break-up album, cover someone else’s. And do it just like this, please.