When I first heard of Ryan Adams‘ preposterous song-for-song cover album of Taylor Swift’s 2014 bestseller 1989, I thought it was some kind of joke. Adams is famously prolific, having recorded many entire albums that have never seen the light of day, but the decision to cover 1989 in full was a move that made no sense on any level (other than to ride the coattails of the album’s popularity, of course). But then I watched a clip of Adams interviewing Swift, and something clicked. If you watch the clip, at one point he says, “If I’m ever stuck when I’m writing, I can just put a Smiths record on, and it’s kind of like if my songwriting is an iPhone, it recharges in like five minutes.” “Really?” Swift asks. “Yeah, because there’s all these question marks in it, and it’s very foreign to me, and it’s always going to make me want to go and play guitar.” Translation: Adams has always wanted to make a Smiths album.
When Swift made 1989, she consciously chose an outdated production style in order to more effectively place the record in an ’80s context. Although Taylor’s fifth album overall, 1989 was intended as a rebirth, since it was the first album Swift made that saw her leave her country roots behind. As such, the back to basics conceit extended to the album’s title, as well, which is also the year of Swift’s birth. Swift has expert marketing instincts, and she utilized them to perfection in re-positioning herself as a pop superstar with 1989. The album went five times platinum in the United States in the space of just over six months. I hated it. In fact, I just listened to it again and I still hate it. The production may be ’80s-retro, but it’s unfortunately all of the worst things about how tacky ’80s music sounded. Not only are the techniques utilized — excessive reverb, gated drums, chintzy synthesizers — bad, but the music is so poorly mixed, with the songwriting suffocated so completely, it’s hard to believe her label could have possibly approved it for release.
Of course, I was then absolutely stunned to see 1989 go on to win Album of the Year at the Grammys. Five million copies sold is one thing — people have been buying bad pop music for decades — but Album of the Year? Then again, a Grammy isn’t exactly a reputable award — you have to be popular first, and then good second, in order to get nominated, which is a bit backwards. Still, the fact that 1989 won over Kendrick Lamar‘s masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly or Courtney Barnett‘s Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit (not even nominated) or D’Angelo and the Vanguard‘s Black Messiah (not even nominated) is just ridiculous. It just furthers the argument that the Grammys — the music industry in general — have a lot of work to do to achieve respectability.
At any rate, I’m clearly in a distinct minority regarding the music of Taylor Swift; I just don’t think she’s any good, frankly. Her life and frequent romantic entanglements aren’t as interesting as she seems to think they are, and there’s no artistic depth to much of anything she puts out. That being said, while she may come across as a tad insufferable — as I’m sure any of us would be from time to time if we were the center of attention for years — she’s a good-hearted person who seems perfectly nice, which is a large part of why I didn’t review 1989 last year; I don’t bash albums just to bash them. The only time I will write a negative review is if I already have some sort of connection with the artist (i.e., I already like them or find them interesting) or if the album has received a ton of critical acclaim. In the case of 1989, it did receive acclaim, but I still felt like writing a review just to say I didn’t like it wasn’t a good use of my time.
As fate would have it, with Ryan Adams releasing his own version of 1989, I was just able to sneak in my review of Taylor Swift’s 1989 above anyway. After all, it’s kind of necessary to voice my thoughts on her original record if I’m going to tackle a cover version. Whereas Swift’s version approximates a lost Phil Collins record, with the production’s industrial machinery completely overwhelming any sense of songcraft, Adams takes the songs in a moodier, more college rock direction, employing acoustic instruments instead. Which means, yes, the Smiths come to mind here, as he even mopes in the style of Morrissey — he is coming off a divorce to Mandy Moore, after all — and gives his guitar a soothing, Johnny Marr-like sheen. Often, like on “Blank Space,” Adams opts for sparse, quiet arrangements, which impress on first glance since they are so jarringly contrary to Swift’s originals and it’s a relief that the songs are given a non-overproduced home, but after a couple spins, weaknesses in the original compositions begin to show.
With the more uptempo songs, Adams ultimately fares better. “Welcome to New York” is better than Swift’s ultra-pop version, but it still falls a little flat after a few spins, even if it is an alt-rock version backed with strings. Taylor’s version of “Style” was actually pretty decent, I thought, and is perhaps preferable to Adams’ rock rendition here, since it swims in so much reverb it’s pretty much unusable. “Out of the Woods” is one of the better interpretations on Adams’ album, I think. It runs a full two minutes longer than the original, starting with a slow, jangly acoustic build and adding a string section at the end to give the song a nice pull. “All You Had to Do Was Stay” smokes the original and sounds like it could fit right in on 2014’s Ryan Adams; it’s the best track on the album and plays to Adams’ strengths.
“Shake It Off” just doesn’t work here, and not just lyrically (it’s pretty specifically about Taylor’s own fame); musically, it never goes anywhere. “I Wish You Would” is one of the better tracks on the Adams record. “Bad Blood” is actually a track I kind of like on the Taylor Swift record, and Adams handles it fine here. The rest of the album (a full third of it), just isn’t memorable or is just more of the same, and the fact that it all comes at the same time (we’re talking about tracks 9 through 13) is certainly a problem. It in itself underscores the underlying problem with this project, which is that regardless of how good an interpreter Adams is (and he’s a good one), there weren’t enough good ideas present on the initial record in the first place. Split testing Swift’s and Adams’ versions of 1989 reveals that Adams has a remarkable ability to seemingly conjure workable, fully acoustic versions of songs out of the equivalent of thin air.
Without having access to Swift’s original demos, he unscrambled her densely overproduced final versions that often had no discernible acoustic elements. Granted, these are not complex songs, but the differences between the two final versions are pretty astounding when they are laid side by side. Still, there’s not much of a point to this record. Perhaps Adams really did just like the songs and he wanted to give them a Smiths-style production and record a song-for-song cover album to scratch all three of these itches at once. (After all, Adams reportedly once recorded a song-for-song cover album of the Strokes‘ Is This It that remains in his vaults.) Either way, Adams’ version is a novelty album; nothing more, nothing less. Though somehow I have a feeling this album will receive more publicity than any of his others.