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Breaking down Ryan Adams’ cover album of Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’

'Style' rocks and pops like early U2, and rocks harder than even some of his own singles.

Feb 29, 2020, 7:20 pm*

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Ramon Ramirez 

Ramon Ramirez

After shepherding an interesting idea through thick Web buzz, 40-year-old singer-songwriter Ryan Adams delivered on his promise Monday to re-record Taylor Swift’s entire 1989 album in the key of The Smiths. It’s a meditative and rewarding thought experiment to be sure—but what’s he going for here?

Swift herself publicly endorsed the idea last month, and with enough earnest enthusiasm that you forget she will receive a royalty from every copy sold of Adams’ cover album. Tweets here double as a 63 million-follower-strong promotional push.

https://twitter.com/taylorswift13/status/645769757522817029

As for Adams, well, he “<3s” these jams that sold more than 5 million copies worldwide. Released almost a year ago in October, Swift’s 1989 is a work of dedicated American craftsmanship. Every inch of the thing considers its singer’s experience as a single and misunderstood creature of habit. Hell the original “Shake It Off” borrows proven ideas—hip-hop slang, sax stabs, pep rally drums, hand claps, assorted “oohs,” themes about going out with friends and dancing, call-and-response bridges—and draws a perfect pop circle. Seven of its 13 songs were co-written by 44-year-old Swedish charts architect Max Martin. As the Atlantic notes this month: Martin is “responsible for more hits than Phil Spector, Michael Jackson, or the Beatles.”

From Britney Spears’s “… Baby One More Time,” to the Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” Martin writes No. 1 records like a garden spider weaves web between your lawn furniture. But on 1989 he helps Swift bundle together tall tracks with wit and vulnerability. 

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The heart of 1989’s secular dominance is that it’s an album for people who are floating between the service industry and Taco Bell’s millennial branding, figuring it out. That certainly includes Adams: He told the Wall Street Journal this week that he loved listening to it on tour and turned to it around the holidays, a period wherein he gets particularly isolated and down now that both of his grandparents have passed away.

At first, Adams says, his idea was a 4-track acoustic project inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. The tapes went to hell when the machine ate them. So here we are.

Months later—and after divorcing former pop star Mandy Moore in January after six years of marriage—Adams has struck a pleasant balance with existing online. He’s prone to tweeting cute animal videos and loves writing in lax-bro slang like “vibes,” “jammin’,” and finishing recap tweets with exclamation points about the “awesome day.” He’s touring more—a feat unto itself, given how much his vertigo-inducing Ménière’s disease sidelined him.

Recorded sequentially in 10 days with La Sera guitarist Todd Wisenbaker and drummer Nate Lotz, Adams’ 1989 sounds like it’s satirizing the self-serious, male-centric indie rock ballads of his contemporaries. The kind women are often told they can’t fundamentally understand or connect with. 

It intrinsically dissolves the songwriting line by bathing in the aforementioned Smiths aesthetic—sullen, wounded, exiled in a practice space with rotting walls.

Once there, Adams toasts to the value of big melodies and sunny breakdowns. “Style” rocks and pops like early U2, and rocks harder than even some of his own singles—think the pleading wails from “Fix It.” “Bad Blood” gets a stuck-in-Gainesville, Tom Petty makeover. 

His “Blank Space” is barren acoustics, and it stutter-steps because it’s shockingly joyless—almost disrespectful of its source material by purposefully drowning out the original’s crush-afflicted spirit. But there’s surgical balladry throughout: “How You Get the Girl” goes downtempo too, and here Adams turns Swift’s criticisms on himself. “It’s been a long six months and you are too fake to tell her what you want,” he sings, “and that’s how you get the girl.” Its acoustic wet noodling recalls Adams’ own standout, “My Wrecking Ball,” from last year’s self-titled album.

But this is a loose, celebratory project littered with casual Easter eggs. As Adams told Zane Lowe Monday morning on Apple Music’s Beats 1 radio, Adams flipped the lyric “You’ve got that James Dean daydream look in your eye” into “You’ve got that Daydream Nation look in your eye” just to work in a Sonic Youth high-five.

He also told Lowe that he’s just completed an original double-album of material. I bet it’s almost as good as 1989.

Photo via 6tee-zeven/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Sep 21, 2015, 4:30 pm