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.