Ryan Adams's '1989' cover album depressing, cathartic
Ryan Adams really takes Taylor Swift seriously.
Swift’s infectious, critically beloved 1989 is a pop triumph, so Adams’s choice to cover the album in its entirety seems a little baffling at first. But then again, this is Ryan Adams. He has recorded 15 albums in as many years, not including many unreleased ones (a track-by-track cover of The Strokes’s Is This It among them). This is Ryan Adams, recently divorced and newly heartbroken, who wants to shed some teardrops on his guitar and reach out to Taylor Swift for inspiration as so many of us do.
1989, then, is a logical choice for Adams’s cathartic breakup album. It’s Swift’s most cheerful album by a long shot, but even in her “Shake It Off” bubblegum, Swift shows echoes of the heartache and regret that led her to the dancefloor in the first place. In retreading her emotional steps and appropriating her words to fit his own voice, Adams is recording the ultimate love letter to Swift and the power of her lyricism.
If only Adams had done more with the material. I’m not sure anyone would point to the lyrics on 1989 as a pillar of Great American Songwriting (“His hands are in my hair / His clothes are in my room”), but Swift covers a great deal of emotional bases with a diverse collection of retro-inspired pop beats. Adams keeps his covers simple, often using only acoustic guitars to accompany his driving voice. Sometimes, as in the standout “Out of the Woods,” the plainness of his arrangements scrubs the music of any pretense and allows the listener to bathe in his begging, crying timbre. Much of the time, though, Adams drowns in his own sadness and self-pity, losing sight of the emotion that makes his other tracks so strong. “This Love” is a drag of a song, lasting nearly five minutes with nothing to offer except a few repeating piano notes and vocals that sound like Adams is doing his best impression of a sleepy Bono. The bad and boring far outweigh the album’s innovative material, which is a shame, because Adams attempts some radical style on this record.
While 1989’s simplicity is its downfall, the more experimental tracks are where Adams truly shines. “Style” is a messy clusterfuck of a song, but upon a second listen, his sonic influences become more clear. The jabbing energy of the guitars is reminiscent of ’80s-era Sonic Youth (Adams also makes a lyrical shout-out to that “Daydream Nation look in your eye”). Before he released the album, Adams noted that he was attempting to cover 1989 in the style of Bruce Springsteen and The Smiths. When he really leans into his inspiration, as on the album’s opener, “Welcome to New York,” Adams’s experimentation pays off with some interesting sounds he hasn’t utilized in his discography to date.
Despite the tributes galore, Adams imbues most every song with his signature alt-country sensibility. Even the sparse and depressive “Blank Space” is immediately recognizable as a Ryan Adams song; I wouldn’t be surprised if, at this very moment, one of Adams’s many cool-dad fans is queuing up this album for a drive upstate, and doesn’t realize until “Bad Blood” that the lyrics are actually Taylor Swift. Adams puts a lot of faith in those lyrics he’s borrowing from Swift — the cover album operates on the meaning and merit of those words on their own, the fact that he can change the arrangement and strip down the beats to a few guitars and the essential Taylor Swift feelings will still be there to drive the album to its hopeful close.
Adams’s faith in the timelessness of these songs is sometimes bizarre. He attempts to pass “Shake It Off” as an ode to late-night desperation and white boy sadness, which is absolutely ridiculous considering that the lyrics are all about dancing and having fun. But some of these songs legitimately work in a weird, raw and compelling way. He’s serious, completely committing to feeling the way he does, accepting the imperfections of how it all turns out on playback. Through its highs and lows, 1989 sifts through Adams’s broken-up psyche, one acoustic guitar and Taylor lyric at a time.
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