Review Summary: A daydream dressed like a nightmare.
The surprising thing about Ryan Adams covering the biggest album by the world’s biggest pop star isn’t that it exists; given the state of Adams’ cluttered record collection and even more impenetrable well of rarities and tossed-off B-sides, 1989
feels inevitable. This is the same artist who I described in a 2010 review as someone “who could probably take a sh
it and come up with a gem of a pop hook, but [he] seems to lack that which most of us were blessed with at birth: bowel control.” No, the surprising thing is that it’s here, fully formed, as gorgeous a Ryan Adams record as anything in his own catalog. At the least, 1989
isn’t too far off his usual tack. Swift may be a pop monolith, but the caliber of her songwriting has always stood out among her peers. It’s not a stretch to find, as Adams does here, the cracked veneer of big city promises and broken dreams in “Welcome to New York,” to draw out the sap and calcify wounds into scars like his version of “Out Of The Woods” accomplishes effortlessly. This is a far cry from, for example, his 2010 “sci-fi metal concept album” that he wrote while working on the relatively bland Easy Tiger
, or his near-mythical album-length cover of the Strokes’ Is This It
translated through the blues that will probably never reach the public. But calling this a publicity stunt is a cynical way to look at things. A funny thing happened while Adams continued to drop snippets of tracks and relentlessly tweeted his enthusiasm for the project: these were songs that latched on to him, igniting a passion more often seen in Adams’ live shows these days than his own records.
It’s tempting to play armchair psychologist and point to the recent dissolution of his marriage with Mandy Moore and his subsequent retelling of 1989
as an almost uncomfortable referendum on himself. That Swift’s lyrics sound here like they were written for him is 1989
’s surest sign of success. The knee-jerk reaction to this record has Adams’ wounded white boy shtick contrasting sharply with radio anthems like “Shake It Off,” Swift unplugged rather than revised. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. There’s nothing tossed off about the slow burn of “Shake It Off,” its echoes of Springsteen providing the perfect backdrop for Swift’s ascendant lyrics, more of a weary affirmation of a fu
ck-up continuing to do what he’s always done rather than a fist-in-the-air anthem. The spartan piano chords framing “This Love” emphasize the hopeful strength in Swift’s lyrics in their nakedness; the rainy atmosphere the song evokes conjures up welcome memories of Love Is Hell
. When Adams really turns a song on its head, it’s not with some flashy reimagining. While the acoustic hush of “Blank Space” certainly fits that bill, his ragged singing and subtle modifications to the lyrics are the details that transform the song into his own, more aware of a recklessness in the lyrics than Swift let on. Less successful are the songs where Adams can’t quite find that emotional vein to shine a light on. It’s not a huge loss that he wasn’t able to do more with the comparatively rote “Bad Blood,” given its subject matter, but a cover like “Style” sounds strained, its stereotypically dark vibe more of an affectation than an authentic feeling. More often than not, though Adams’ reveals dimensions barely hinted at in the original – the wistful escape of “I Know Places” cast in a shadow, desperate and wavering with a sprinkling of flamenco guitar, while a haze of dream pop obscures the sap and emphasizes the regret on “I Wish You Would.”
This transformation of what is a very bright, very confident pop record through the filter of a doggedly self-critical Adams is an effective showcase for an artist who hasn’t been this forthright since he was pissing off his label with Love Is Hell
and that album’s desolate cover of “Wonderwall.” It’s rare that a covers album tells us just as much about the artist doing the covering as it does its subject, but 1989
never acts like this is anything but an unforgiving reflection; just one that uses slightly more famous songs than usual. The appeal is in the care of Adams’ arrangements, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it lyrical changes and sly winks to fans, in that undeniable connection to the source material. The best compliment I could give a track like “Wildest Dreams” is that it takes my favorite 1989
track and creates one of my favorite Ryan Adams songs, a shimmering, blurry cousin to his timeless last call anthem “Anybody Wanna Take Me Home.” That’s a testament not only to Adams’ creativity but also to the core strength of Swift’s songwriting and the versatility of her lyrics, something that 1989
, for all the cries of “cash grab” and “vanity project,” really succeeds at highlighting. I can’t think of a better way to pay tribute.