Album Review: Ryan Adams – 1989

It seemed like a joke at the time. Ryan Adams, that laconic, slacker alt-country dude, covering an entire Taylor Swift album. He’s a guy known for being “real” – evoking old Springsteen and Tom Petty tunes, essentially – and Swift is known for being “fake,” which is a way for people to denigrate her for having the audacity to try and make lots and lots of money through her music.

Really, it seemed like a joke.

But now here it is, thirteen covers of Swift, as played by Adams and company. And the whole thing is played so straight you might think it actually is a joke.

Back in the early part of the 2000s, it was briefly a thing for white frat bros to release acoustic covers of hip-hop tunes. Their folk-evoking, deadpan readings were supposed to draw out the ironies in the music, the videos juxtaposing upper-class life against songs about being poor. They tried turning a genre into a farce for a cheap, ugly laugh. By and large, these covers were hot garbage, a tasteless joke people forgot about after a year or two.

I feared Adams’ version would be similar: he’d consciously try and draw on Swift’s image as a pop star to get a cheap laugh, the music a knowing wink to those too cool for school, as it were. But here’s the thing: I didn’t get that impression, not once.

I’ll admit I’m only slightly familiar with Ryan Adams. I’ll also admit I’m kind of a fan of Swift; I’ve written a couple of lengthy pieces about her. But regardless, I like this thing. I like how good Swift’s songs sound in the hands of another artist. I like the emotion Adams has poured into his versions, too. I generally like the arrangements, I like the overall vibe and I even like the cover.

The most interesting thing about this record, and the hype cycle surrounding it, involves the duel roles of Swift and Adams. In one corner, Swift is seen as fake because she works with songwriters and producers to fashion her sound. In the other is Adams, a guy who’s seen as authentic because he has the air of doing it all himself. Somehow, in some eyes, he lends Swift’s music an authenticity she could never attain herself.

It’s all a load of horseshit; to those who think her songs weren’t any good, why do they now sound good in Adams’ hands? You can’t polish a turd, but you can polish a gemstone, ya dig?

The most interesting stuff on this record are the moments where Adams sounds the most like his influences. His version of “Welcome to New York” sounds like a Springsteen outtake while “Style” could fit right near early 80s Pete Townshend. If I remember right, Swift said her concept for 1989 was to make music that evoked the year of her birth; Adams’ version sounds like a requiem for the Album Oriented Rock of that decade.

I think my favourite song on the record is Adams’ reading of “Bad Blood.” The original had a lousy video and was arguably the weakest cut on the record, which was a bummer since it’s one of Swift’s meanest songs, a left cross at Katy Perry buried under chants and a cameo by Kendrick Lamar.

But there isn’t really any malice in Adams’ version; instead he comes off sounding like a jilted ex. He’s turned her song into a plea, simply by reversing the gender roles in the song (and to think – he didn’t even have to change any pronouns!). And in it’s own way, it shows that despite the producers and writers Swift works with, she’s still writing country music – and she’s hitting her stride, too.

For the believers, there won’t be any revelations here. I liked Swift’s 1989 a lot and consequently, I like Adams version a lot, too. For the people too cool to like Swift, but like Adams’ indie cred, maybe they’ll swallow some pride and go buy a record with some seagulls on the cover. And maybe some people will find his version a little repetitive; as good as it is, it does occasionally lose focus and it’s minimal rock band arrangements could drag for some listeners.

It may have started as a joke, but after spending an hour with Adams playing Swift’s music, I’m willing to believe a few things:

  • Adams respects Swift’s music
  • Swift’s songwriting is as strong as it’s ever been
  • This version of 1989 is a strong record, saying as much about the former as it does the latter

Rating: 3.5/5


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