In what seems like an unlikely confluence of forces in the universe, a little more than a month ago, prolific alt-folk troubadour and all-around pop culture junkie Ryan Adams revealed through social media that he was recording his own version of Taylor Swift’s blockbuster album 1989. Initial reactions to the idea may elicit the kind of humours joy that makes the unlikely-cover sub-genre so enjoyable (see Me First and the Gimme Gimmes’ entire catalogue). Yet, once that initial high subsides, what’s left is far more interesting and engaging that just a gimmick or novelty.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Adams’ take on Swift’s album is how well it works. It’s a not only a testament to Adams’ ability as a musician and an interpreter, but to Swift’s songs themselves. See “Shake it Off”: Adams takes that song’s the bubblegum pop and makes it intimate and insular, though it wouldn’t work if the song itself wasn’t so well-crafted.
It’s also remarkable how much Adams makes these songs his own. The quiet hush of “Blank Space” recalls Heartbreaker; “Style” is a dark, druggy, crunchy jam. 1989 most closely resembles his brilliant Love is Hell from 2004, a deliberate attempt to craft a Smiths-inspired album. “Bad Blood” and “Out of the Woods” feel like they’d fit on that album—both musically and thematically.
Adams decorates the songs in Meat is Murder and The Queen is Dead textures (“Well I Wonder” is all over this record), but also manages to sneak in some nods to the Boss: “Welcome to New York” and “Shake it Off” approximate Born in the U.S.A.—the latter especially is reminiscent of Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.”
Pretty much every track here is a winner—Swift’s album is engineered for maximum impact—and Adams’ arrangements really work to the songs’ strengths. 1989 is free of irony; Adams treats these songs with sincerity and reverence, ultimately leading to the album’s success. It’d be easy to dismiss 1989 as simply a cover album; on paper it looks like nothing more than a lark. Though to dismiss it would be to write-off one of Adams’ most enjoyable albums and a key to understanding his sensibilities.[embed width=”560″ height=”315″]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pcJ_ECyEK4I[/embed]