by Chad Jewett
1989, Ryan Adams’ new song-by-song reimagining of what is likely the most seismic pop album of the last half-decade, actually ends up telling us a lot more about Taylor Swift – the album’s original author – than it does about Adams. The overwhelming feeling one gets as you work your way through the indie-country singer-songwriter’s hour long rendition of Swift’s album is that Taylor’s aesthetic is indeed a lot harder than it looks. Many of these songs work because Swift knows precisely how to make them work. To a certain extant this has always been the line on Taylor Swift – that her early, love-struck FM country and her more recent faintly auteurist electro-pop only seems simple, but actually contains magnitudes and is driven by one hell of an instinct for melodies, hooks, and the zeitgeist. An afternoon spent with Ryan Adams’ revision of 1989 confirms all of that. Taylor Swift’s music is now an impeccably nuanced and finely-honed thing, to the point where a lot of the ideas running through her most recent album might only be as successful as they are because Swift and her team of producers have just the right touch.
This is all to say that Ryan Adams’ 1989 doesn’t seem to have that much to say about its source material, and often seems frustrated about just how to transform it. Up to now, Adams’ most famous cover was his excellent atmospheric take on Oasis’s “Wonderwall”, released as part of his underrated 2004 album Love Is Hell. On that song, Adams’ took a big, effusive pop song and turned into a haunting ballad, to great success. The 40-year-old country-rock lifer attempts the same pivot on almost all of 1989’s headlining singles, and the effect is dampening, instilling the wrong kind of seriousness into “Blank Space” (though the song’s production is lovely) and weirdly shifting the phrasing of “Out Of The Woods” in such a way that the song drags and feels oddly dissonant with itself. Even more frustrating is the fact that Adams demurs in taking up “Shake It Off”, turning into a minor key dirge that makes the song feel inert and directionless, save for a late-arriving synth part that literally evokes 1989.
Considering the joy that Adams could bring to this material – think of the Replacements-esque “Beautiful Sorta” from Cold Roses or several of the fizzy garage-pop tracks on the better-than-advertised Rock N Roll – it’s a letdown to hear him so often slow Swift’s songs down and coat them in melancholy. “Shake It Off” is already at least 50% pop punk – why not meet it halfway? Elsewhere, Adams seem to avoid some of Swift’s melodies, thereby frustratingly defusing them, as on “Welcome To New York”, where he eschews the climbing chorus that is that song’s saving grace (it certainly isn’t the lyrics), or, once again, on “Shake It Off”, where he bypasses the “play play play / hate hate hate” hook that is the absolute key to that song’s joy. Again, the sheer craft of Taylor Swift’s melodies come into focus as we see Adams try to shift them even a little bit, never quite improving on the originals. To some extent this is what Adams obviously has in mind, and adding darker undertones to the giddy defiance of “Shake it Off” is duly noted, but it doesn’t fully explain the singer-songwriter’s repeated returning to that well, especially when he himself has masterfully offered his own versions of that pop-rock joie de vivre (as one of his songs ecstatically shrugged, “When you’re young you get sad / Then you get high”)
The album’s best moments come when Adams channels the brightest version of the Smiths/R.E.M./Tunnel of Love-era Springsteen aesthetic he so ably plied on last year’s Ryan Adams. “Welcome To New York” might frustratingly zig away from the original’s hooks, but its glossy, blossoming roots-rock take is lovely. “Bad Blood”, and “Wildest Dreams” find similar energy (and valuable new readings) in recalling the Morrissey-informed goth-jangle of Love Is Hell, and there’s even a worthwhile sense of drama in the spaghetti western slink of “I Know Places” (a look we haven’t seen from Adams since 29). Elsewhere, “Style” playfully begins as an 80s hardcore blitz before suddenly twisting into a disco-era Stones boogie, full of slashing neon guitars, while “This Love” eschews the new wave atmospherics of the original for an affecting, magisterial ballad, the one time where this version of 1989 benefits from being more bittersweet than its original. Ultimately, 1989 is an admirable effort on the part of Adams, and the idea of what the singer-songwriter might come up with next having spent this time breaking down and rebuilding Swift’s LP is wholly exciting. It’s a sincerely interesting academic exercise for one of independent music’s deepest thinkers, but it’s also a solid piece of evidence in support of Taylor Swift’s genius for pop music.