Ryan Adams’ ‘1989’ is exactly what we wanted it to be
Turns out both Taylor Swift and Ryan Adams are liars.
Before the release of Taylor Swift’s earth-shattering, think-piece launching, many many albums selling pop masterpiece 1989, our pop cultural lord and savior had suggested that she was making an 80s-styled album, a claim that ended up feeling more true in its Instagrammed album art than the music itself, whose overtones to the Reagan era mostly started and ended with jangly guitars and synths chilling out in the background. Swift’s 1989 sounded more like it was made by somebody who grew up listening to Peter Gabriel and watching John Hughes movies than an actual artifact of the era. Not that anybody’s complaining — Oliver North and Milli Vanilli are probably better off forgotten.
But then Ryan Adams came along, setting fire to Instagram and the dad-rock-industrial complex with his announcement a month and a half ago that he was recording a song-for-song cover of 1989, but in the style of The Smiths. The album dropped on Monday, and it’s just as enjoyable as we hoped, but Ryan Adams is also a goddamn liar — the record sounds more like an 80s pop album than Taylor’s original, and nothing like a Smiths LP, unless maybe Morrissey had accidentally founded The Outfield instead.1
But holy hell is this album fun. And who’s a more perfect choice to make a track-by-track cover of an album that harkens back to the 80s than a guy who spends most of his adult life playing pinball, talking about Star Wars, and releasing his own 1980s-themed EPs?
For a guy as frustratingly talented and prolific as Adams is — he’s released maybe his best album in a decade, a 7″ 80s hardcore EP, 7″ singles every month, an incredible live double-album, and now this record in the last year alone — it’s refreshing to hear him show off his substantial talent, not with his own music (because god knows he’s released enough this fiscal quarter), but by refashioning Swift’s already-great material into something new altogether. For Adams to toss off in a matter of months such inventive and well-developed arrangements of what are already established pop songs is both an impressive feat on Adams’ part and a testament to the strength of Swift’s pop sensibilities and songwriting.
It’s amazing actually how overwhelmingly happy everybody is about the record too.2 It doesn’t feel like a calculated move by Adams or a product drenched in irony like it so easily could have been, and people from Adams’ usual crowd of aging/sad/hipsters/maybe-just-somebody-struggling-with-their-relationship-to-masculinity listeners to Swift herself seem to genuinely appreciate this bizarre pop cultural artifact. The whole lead-up was a welcome bout of earnestness and palpable excitement to see what Adams would do, so much so that it even (however momentarily) made slogging through Adams’ Instagram worthwhile.3
By far the best tracks on the album are its rockers and the more inventive takes on Swift’s — can we call them classics yet? — originals. By cranking the reverb on tracks like “Style” and “Stay,” and channeling his own inner Bryan Adams, Ryan Adams turns the songs into what would be standouts on just about any of his own recent albums.
And then there’s the ghostly cover of “Shake it Off,” whose Bruce-inflected organs, snare hits, and treble-y guitar seem straight off an unreleased B-Side to something off Born in the USA.4 We weren’t following this album release because we were wondering what a Top 40 hit would sound like if it was played by an older white guy with an acoustic guitar, but because we wanted to see what the hell Ryan Adams would do with a line about making dance moves up as he goes.
“Welcome to New York” is another example of Ryan Adams (with a healthy dosage of Hüsker Dü tossed in for good measure) bringing out the best of what Swift was shooting for, even on one of her more maligned tracks from the original album. The opening soars in a way that Swift never quite nailed, inserting Paul Westerberg-esque howls and power chords where Taylor’s version tended to stick to its own bubblegum heel.
But for as good of an effort as Adams put forth, the clearest takeaway from the record is just how good the original material is. It’s not like Adams was reinventing the wheel here — Swift already had a stockade of perfectly constructed pop songs, which Adams only underscores by stripping them down to their bare framework and melodies. We already knew that Swift as an artist could transcend genre (as proved by 1989),5 so this serves as yet another reminder of her crossover power.
“Wildest Dreams” is probably the best example of Adams highlighting what’s best in Swift’s own songs, honing in on its melodic range and riding that chorus’ hook into the golden sunset of Reagan’s America. It’s an evocative song no matter how you style it, and Swift deserves all the credit for what Ryan Adams can do with a song like that in his hands.
Or then there’s his version of “Bad Blood,” which is so tepid and wishy-washy that it helps to illustrate the character that Swift breathes into her tracks, considering Adams’ bland version comes off more like a cover of an Oasis song than anything else.6 And no matter what The Atlantic might say, Taylor Swift doesn’t need Ryan Adams turning “Out of the Woods” into a 6-minute dirge to be vindicated in her songwriting chops.
What’s most intriguing about this album is how incongruous the concept first seemed. Ryan Adams has been in the music industry for most of Taylor Swift’s entire life, back when concert footage looked like whatever filters Taylor applied to the photos on her liner notes:
If there’s any good corollary between Adams and pop music, it’s more Kanye than Taylor — both are talented, ornery, temperamental geniuses who played foundational roles in forming a genre that they now hesitatingly still fit into. Also this:
But the Swift-Adams connection makes sense — Adams did, after all, supposedly make a track-by-track cover of The Stroke’s Is This It that never saw the light of day, and he makes no effort to hide his love of nostalgia and his wide musical palette. And perhaps Adams’ 1989 is actually the most alt-country thing a foundational member of the genre can do: Take the mainstream pop of a former country star and add a Telecaster and a pack of Marlboros into the mix.
Ultimately the best part of Adams’ 1989 isn’t the music itself, but the atmosphere leading up to its release and the experience of coming together and listening to it, all of us and Taylor herself on Twitter at once. When so many trending topics in pop culture feel meticulously planned and executed, we got to see the shaggy, denim-clad Adams decide that he wanted to cover 1989 and then fucking do it, putting out with earnest care for the original material and with love towards the listeners a gift that we could look forward to and enjoy. It was a pop culture collision in a music world made large by Spotify and segmented by genre, one that reminded us how good it can feel to appreciate a good pop song.