Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Ryan Adams transforms Taylor Swift’s 1989 into a melancholy masterpiece

Photo: Julia Brokaw
Photo: Julia Brokaw

Ryan Adams goes wherever his muse directs him, which explains why he’s just as likely to release a hardcore EP as he is an alt-country masterpiece. But when news broke that he had decided to put his own spin on Taylor Swift’s 1989 (and was interpreting it in the style of the Smiths, no less), it was one of his more random, if not entirely unexpected, gestures. After all, Adams once made a blues version of the Strokes’ 2001 debut, Is This It, which never saw the light of day, and he’s decidedly un-snobbish about his musical likes.

As it turns out, Adams was indeed serious about treating his version of 1989 with complete respect and reverence. The finished product is decidedly free of irony or shtick, and, perhaps more important for a covers album, transforms the source material. Swift’s 1989 felt upbeat and empowering, though its lyrics touched on damaging breakups, irresistible bad decisions, and romantic regrets, because she never gave up hope that things might work out in her favor. Adams’ interpretation of 1989 is a case of seeing the glass half empty: He operates under the assumption that things are irrevocably damaged, and responds accordingly.


And so the “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want”-esque acoustic posturing of “Out Of The Woods” exacerbates the song’s uncertainty about a relationship’s status; the reverb-slathered, minor-key jangle of “All You Had To Do Was Stay” is contorted by anguish, not desperation; and the conspiratorial acoustic riffs, string shivers, and falsetto-kissed vocal delivery of “Blank Space” are a eulogy to optimism. Even the relentless pep talk “Shake It Off” is an unconvincing attempt at breaking out of personal doldrums.

This approach to 1989 works so well in part because Adams tends to be at his best when he’s wallowing in heartbreak. But it’s also successful because he doesn’t overstate this interpersonal drama. The 1989 arrangements (and the moody contributions of La Sera guitarist Tod Wisenbaker, who collaborated with Adams on the album) are sparse and restrained, with plenty of space for melancholy to linger and resonate. Watercolor-hued strings and well-placed percussion thumps creep into the acoustic-ruffled “How You Get The Girl”; “Bad Blood” is the quintessential Adams-style alt-country shuffle; and “This Love” becomes a chilling piano ballad. The much-ballyhooed Smiths influence is also rather seamless, especially on the sighing rainy day riffs on “Wildest Dreams” and dreampop jam “I Wish You Would.” (The flamenco guitar splashes and rattlesnake percussion on “I Know Places,” however, firmly resemble modern-day solo Morrissey.)

Yet 1989 is more than just a Moz homage. As with 2014’s Ryan Adams, there’s also a strong Springsteen vibe: “Shake It Off” nicks the tick-tock drumming and solemn midnight ambience of “I’m On Fire,” while Adams’ clenched-teeth vocal delivery and salt-of-the-earth strums on “Welcome To New York” are classic Boss signifiers. And another highlight, the raucous “Style,” is a yearning, ’80s college rock fever dream with snarling punk stabs à la Sonic Youth. In a sense, Adams has created the soundtrack to a fictional ’80s teen movie.

Still, what his version of 1989 does best is illustrate the strength of the source material. With the radio-ready gloss stripped away, these songs compare to the best moments in Swift’s back catalog. For fans, this isn’t a new revelation: Despite the sleeker production, Taylor’s 1989 themes didn’t stray that far from her roots, just reflected the fact that she’s matured. Adams will receive a reputation boost and a boatload of new Twitter followers thanks to the support of loyal Swifties, which is completely deserved. But his 1989 is also a stark reminder that Swift’s songwriting continues to deserve respect and kudos.

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