“That Daydream Nation look in your eye” // Ryan Adams – 1989 (Album Review)

Ryan Adams has always had a fondness of covering songs that excited him in just the right way. Hardcore fans might remember how at the beginning of the ‘00s rumors abounded about him covering his former apartment neighbors The Strokes complete debut album Is This It, even though, only an occasional energetized rock version or a stripped-down acoustic live version of Last Nite would see the light of day. During the late Cardinals era, we saw him reimagine various Vampire Weekend songs. His cover of Wonderwall still is one of his most commerically successful released recordings. And most recently, Adams did not only referenced with tongue-in-cheekly to the early jokes about him and Bryan Adams by earnestly covering Run To You, early this year he also took the stage as „Natalie Sass“ as his own support act, covering various songs from Natalie Prass.

Adams usually doesn‘t just reinterpret songs with the help of his artistic and technical means, but his versions usually also capture the way a song hit him and how it somehow echoed something that really spoke to him. You can still feel a piece of the enthusiasm of him being a music fan proclaming excitedly: Damn yes! I found this gem! I know EXACTLY what this artist is talking about! I just could never have put the finger on it quite like this!, and the susequent step, Now, I want to make it mine!. After heavily teasing it for thorough the last few months via studio updates and video snippets, last monday Ryan Adams digitally released his version of Taylor Swifts last years omnipresent pop album 1989, a record that chronologically follows the story of a couple falling in love and breaking up (and dealing with it while being confronted with heavy press attention).

As someone who got popculturally socialised in the 90’s, I’ve had more than just my share of exposure to high gloss mainstream pop productions by Max Martin, one of the main contributors to Swifts 1989 (It’s Gonna Be Me, anymore?). Nevertheless, I never really got comfortable with Taylor Swift as a brand. Her image always seemed too – perfect? professional? business woman? calculating? plain? – in order to see her as someone artistically expressing an authentic feeling.

In consequence, it nagged me even more, that a number of songs from 1989, released almost exactly one year ago, hit quite a note with me – I do have a soft spot for pure, shimmery and professionally produced pop songs. And probably, this is Swifts actual recipe and achievement in general: To disarm elitist music nerds‘ reluctance to identify with the mass appeal of an universally acclamied pop record, and turn their mumbled guilty pleasure confession into unapologetic, hipster-compatible (even rebellious!) fandom. Therefore, it’s funny imagining all the Alt.-Country aficionados only familiar with Adams’ work and Swifts hit singles (including me) finding themselves in a loyality conflict, nervously switching between their two digital folders of 1989, anxiously checking whether their indie guy can actually win this battle.

Bad Blood, released as a teaser last Friday, was a disapponitment: Adams’ arrangement felt strangely plain, sterile and polished, comparable to his own Easy Tiger-era. The inherently repetitive (as in: monotonous), winched chorus melody really doesn’t help, either. Fortunately, this is not representative for the whole record – on the contrary.

Even though Adams stays inside of his repertoire comfort zone for the whole record (guitar-based singer-songwriter / Alternative Country / Indie pop/rock with a clear flirt for 80’s Punk/ Rock dramaturgy), he still comes up with a surprising variety of diverse re-arrangements for these songs:

Welcome To New York, whose original I appreciated for capturing so perfectly the open-minded excitement and antsy curiosity of a fresh start, is now transformed into a muscled wink to Springsteens cowboy stance with its string intro, deep vocals, bold guitar chords and a keyboard solo, resulting in a close tie in comparison.

Blank Space gets the stripped-to-the-bones-treatment, where only the fingerpicked guitar chord patterns and a few restrained string accents accompany Adams’ tender falsetto, and still the song doesn’t lose anything of it’s catchy grand air.

A palm-muted intro and subsequent roughened strummed chords turn Style into a punk-infused 80’s affair with Adams’ raspy, breathless vocals level out somewehere between defensive-cool hollering and desperate howling, not unsimilar to Jack Whites trademark nag. Funnily, Adams alters Swifts original lyrics you got that James Dean daydream look into Daydream Nation look, which arguably might be considered a sacrilege – to use an allusion to Sonic Youth in a Taylor Swift Cover –, but on the other hand it makes so much sense: Wouldn’t we, just as Ryan Adams, be quite attracted to someone with a Daydream Nation look in his/her eyes, whatever the hell that look would actually look like? In my books, the idea is definitely seductive.

And then there is All You Had To Do Was Stay. While the original is too busy with being another danceable uptempo track with a big uprising hookline, Ryans version takes the desesperation and anger of the title line very seriously, an effect especially achieved through the color of Ryans tense, wrought up voice: His intonation seems to be pleading and accusing at the same time, and the high vocals are just high enough to sound vulnerably shakey, but still firm enough to not yet have to disappear into his head voice, which gives the performance an extraordinary punch of urgency. Definitely the best and most moving song on the record.

Wildest Dreams resembles not without reason Love Is Hell’s track Anybody Wanna Take Me Home, as both songs pay a fanboy’s tribute to Johnny Marrs signature dangleing guitar work in The Smiths. This Love, probably a climax in the albums narrative, reinvigorates the desperate longing and inner demons of Adams’ Sylvia Plath with its hauntedly reverbed piano and falsetto vocals.

Interestingly, Stereogums recent Premature Evaluation of the record reflects on how Adams taking on Swifts songs might be interpreted as an artistic expression itself:

 We’re hearing a sad, lonely middle-aged man attempting to reckon, for maybe the first time, that he’s become a sad, lonely middle-aged man, and using the songs of Taylor Swift as a vehicle to do it. There’s something beautiful about that.

Whereas Stereogums way of putting it appears a bit plain to me, there’s a bit of truth in there: While the emotional subject of Swifts songs might be the reason why Adams could connect to them, his take reflects that the experience of love and loss (and the whole emotional rollercoaster within) might feel differently when made through not for the first time, but just another time. This might also be an explanation for the fact that album closer Clean, that was written by Swift and the amazing Imogen Heap, in Swifts version, much more is a relieved statement of redemption and rebirth, while Adams’ song, especially the vocals, still feels shadowed and exhausted. Thourough the record, Adams’ sound has a broader pallette of colors and adds a new depth, but also a fleshier sound to the former very light, very monotonous rhythm-orientated 90’s Boygroup sound design that predominates the original 1989.

Whereas releasing a cover album of one of the most successful records of last year certainly is a career move your manager would embrace, the whole project still feels convinceable to me. As both Adams and Swift share a certain sense of open-mindedness, of not letting outside classifications blur their judgement, the idea of Ryan wholeheartedly excited, playing around with these jams is an image that seems pretty much in character for him (if you need a reminder: he’s a pinball lunatic, obsessive cat content poster, enthusiastic comic nerd, and infamously performing in the same denim jacket with only the black t-shirt of some 80‘s hardcore / punk / metal band changing occasionally, etc.)

So, in many ways, this record at the same time is the confirmation and the falsification of the old rule: A good song is a good song is a good song. And still there’s so much power and variation in how to colour the central sentiment of a songwriters work. And at the end of the day, albeit age and sex differences, there still might be more similarities between an 20 year old girl and a 40 year old guy suffering from severe heartbreak.

Listen to a release day interview with Ryan Adams on Zane Lowe’s Beats 1 Show with Taylor Swift calling in here.

Ryan Adams – 1989 is out now digitally. A physical release is expected for later this year.

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Where I was when it happened. // BOY – We Were Here (Album Review)

0_BOY_We Were Here_AlbumcoverBack in the late summer of 2011, when Boys break-through single Little Numbers was omnipresent, I was in the middle of studying for an exam in clinical psychology. I vividly remember escaping the university library for a break in the cafeteria, and I couldn’t wait to return to my headphones for that contagious hookline. When Valeska Steiner finally hit the passionate sigh of the line is there a cure for me at a-ha-halll, expressing her obsession with her fling, all I could think of was control groups, RCTs, „needs based intervention“ or „treatment as usual“. In my mind the state of having fallen in love and the vocabulary of treating mental illnesses had gotten mixed up (which makes sense, considering that all symptoms of falling in love could be expressed in clinical terminology, not indicating an illness, but a general change of state of mind. The expression of being „crazy in love“ is not necessarily just a metaphor). Anyway, the way the song conveyed the craving for the excitment of falling in love with its animatedly bouncing piano line, especially in contrast to my current studying routine, had something very tempting.

A lot of the short stories of Boy‘s 2011 debut album Mutual Friends revolve around a general vague vibe of anticipation, the situation of still standing on the threshold of entering a new, exciting and promising stage of life, but already impatiently waiting for the journey to begin. Drive Darling recapped the car ride, in which singer Valeska Steiner‘s mum took her from her hometown Zürich to Hamburg to start her musicial career. The Waitress tried to escape her monotonous it-pays-the-bills job by imagining scenarios of something happening. Even the romantic exhilaration of Little Numbers still stemmed from what could be, if the stranger she presently was only stalking, actually called her.
Since 2011, a lot has happened for the band: A gold certification, extensive touring through the USA and Japan after significant success in Germany/Austra/Switzerland, and various features of Little Numbers in movies, TV-shows and, most prominently, a TV ad for a leading german airline. So if Mutual Friends was capturing the essence of the feeling of anticipation „before“ – their second album We Were Here now recapitulates the „after“.

One of the recurrent themes of We Were Here is the intent to stay mindfully present in the storm of impressions happening around you, which probably can be led back to the experience of extensive touring. How do you stay receptive and interested if something extraordinary (visiting other countries, performing, meeting new people) suddenly becomes a regular, sometimes exhausting job routine?
In this sense, the repetition of the title-giving We Were Here in the songs chorus becomes a retrospective self-reassurance: It wasn’t all just an indistinguishable blur that passed us by in a rush. Everywhere we’ve been, we have been leaving traces. This mindful, probably buddhist inspired attitude reminds me of the opener of another very successful second album of a german band: Back in 2005, Wir sind Helden expressed their proposition of savoring every bit of the experience, not letting it slip through your fingers, in their song Wenn es passiert (roughly translated: A heartbeat just for me and the ones with me / Open your eyes, watch this / who hasn’t got any tears left for this / will become blind tomorrow / if you can’t love this, then what? (…) I never want to ask where I was).

BOY_2015_5_credit Debora Mittelstaedt(c) Debora Mittelstaedt

The back side to this is introduced in Hotel, where the sterile, impersonal comfort in hotel rooms cannot distract from the isolation of the people inhabiting: Different city, different hotel room, but the look of the room stay the same, as well as the feeling: a longing for a home instead of a house.

It’s just a stop along the way /
just a temporary place /
for nameless neighbors in the dark /
wall to wall but worlds apart /
a hotel room is a hotel room is a hotel room
.

Eventually, BOY even try to integrate the spirit of emotional discovery to their life coming home, not allowing the sudden decline of adrenaline turn into a coming-home-blues. Therefore, New York states that with the right mindset, it’s really not about the place (any street that I’m walking with you / anywhere with you could be new york (…) but i woke up all eyes and all ears, / when you whispered / (…) it’s all really happening here).

Another recurring, more personal motive is how to accompany a loved one through rough waters. Fear evokes associations to Angst (fear), a song by Fotos, the band of Boys current touring guitarist Deniz Erarslan, who Valeska Steiner sang background vocals for on their debut album before Boy had been formed. Both songs describe fear as being possesed by a demon crawling under your skin and invading every aspect of your personality and every area of your functional life as an individual (with every step i feel its weight / in my eyes you can see its face / in Angst) or as a romantic couple (in Fear).
Steiner sings from the perspective of the partner of someone with anxiety issues and illustrates the desperate attempts to help her loved one: the strong will to put up with the fight against this powerful invisible enemy, energised by her love (i’ll shield you ‘til it disappears, all my love against your fear). Eventually though, she also realizes her complete helplessness against the omnipotence of this condition. In a similar context, the character in Flames utters her resignation: „and i call your name / but i can’t get through (…) oh dear love, if only i could find / a way to ease your troubled mind“.

BOY_2015_1_credit Debora Mittelstaedt(c) Debora Mittelstaedt

In the album closer Into The Wild, we find the protagonist torn between the decision of accompanying a loved person into the unknown and missing the comfort of home, or staying home and gloryfing the missed love. Realizing (and accepting) that there is no solution to the dilemma between the travel bug and the wish for a secure and comfortable home, the album ends decisively indecisive on an ambiguous note (so when the music is over / will i finally have my answer?).
Funily enough, the chorus of the song uses a very common chord progression that is also prominently used in U2’s With Or Without You, which in a way makes even sense considering the content. When I returned from a long time abroad, my mother noticed pictures of friends from another country on my wall and said: Well, over there you had fotos up from people here, now it’s the other way round. So it never actually feels right, or complete: There is always something missing.

Boy have often been accused by critics of being too accessible, of making music everybody could agree on, of being too tame and simple-hearted. And again on this record, it is pretty easy to find arguments for this: We Were here is very traditional acoustic singer-songwriter record, with maybe some new traces of the currently trendy 80’s power pop synth lines here and there. But: In a recent review, Pitchfork  defined a good mainstream pop record as capturing emotions everybody can relate to with so much individual personality that they actually can become universal representations of a certain feeling. And in this sense, Boy succeed to create pop music that represents a certain sense of simplicity, a non-judging curiosity and excitment, conveying enough character in order to still be interesting.

Boy‘s melancholy of longing or being stuck in between the attraction of new experiences and the longing for security never turns into negativity, as at the end of the day it’s an expression of richness and content: There’s just still so much to be seen and felt in this world.

Sources

  • Promotional photographs of Boy: Copyright Debora Mittelstaedt.
  • Fotos – Angst. From Porzellan – Snowwhite, 2010.
  • Wir sind Helden – Wenn es passiert. From Von hier an blind – Reklamation Records, Labels, 2005.