When one considers all the baffling things Ryan Adams has done throughout the course of his career (following up his beloved albums Heartbreaker and Gold with the butt-rock abomination Rock N Roll, releasing a godawful vinyl-only heavy-metal sci-fi concept album, spending part of the mid-2000s on a daily speedball regimen), covering an entire Taylor Swift album may be the most sensible thing he’s done in years. Whereas most of his previous musical tangents have only served to alienate his original fanbase, 1989 has netted Adams possibly more press than ever before.
This is hardly surprising. Once you come to the realization that the project isn’t some sort of exercise in hipster irony, it becomes great fodder for meta commentary on the music industry. Is Adams’s version of 1989 the ultimate triumph of poptimism—a widely respected singer-songwriter lending unassailable credibility to pop’s current queen—or does it reveal Adams to be a shallow trend-hopping whore?
Once we tire ourselves out debating these matters, one final question remains: Will anyone actually still be listening to this thing in a few months? Swift’s 1989 has certainly proven its longevity: A full year after the album’s release, two of its five singles are still on the Billboard 100, including one in the top 10. Adams has never and will never replicate that kind of commercial success, but his 1989 may do better in achieving a more modest goal: appealing to skeptical Ryan Adams fans.
That’s because it actually sort of sounds like a logical follow-up to his last studio effort, 2014’s Ryan Adams, which was the late-’80s AOR rock album he’d been trying to make, usually with much schlockier results, for a long time. Keeping with that trend, 1989 often sounds like it could have been released in, well, 1989. This perhaps speaks as much to the retro underpinnings of Swift’s songs as it does to Adams’s more overtly retro execution, which ranges in tastefulness from pleasant Green-era R.E.M. jangle pop on “Wildest Dreams” to the gratingly bombastic “Style,” which just sounds like a bad U2 song.
Whatever the end results, Adams at least deserves credit for putting so much effort into 1989’s arrangements.
Whatever the end results, Adams at least deserves credit for putting so much effort into 1989’s arrangements. It would have been too easy, and more mundane, for him to just sit down with an acoustic guitar and render all of Swift’s songs as tender confessionals in the style of Heartbreaker. There are hints of that approach, most notably his stark rendition of “Blank Space,” which serves to highlight the strength of the original melody, apparently pliable enough to remain an earworm without all the buzzing electronic Max Martin accoutrements.
But most of 1989 is much denser, without betraying Adams’s inherent aesthetic. Arrangement-wise, Adams’s “Bad Blood” doesn’t diverge too drastically from Swift’s, at least compared to, say, “Blank Space.” Where Swift’s vocal delivery was abrasive and bratty, though, Adams’s is resigned and rueful, indicative of the heart-on-sleeve approach that has characterized his best work and sounding a sincere response to his recent divorce from Mandy Moore (which served as the impetus for this entire project). “Out of the Woods,” meanwhile, is even more unrecognizable, transformed into loping, despondent country-folk that sounds, well, like classic Ryan Adams.
Unfortunately, there are nearly as many misfires on 1989 as there are successful experiments. “This Love” is the sort of repellant piano schmaltz that populated the worst of Adams’s mid-2000s output. And while it would have been impossible for Adams to replicate the percussive arrangement and brassy hooks that made “Shake It Off” so memorable, did he have to turn it into what sounds like a particularly dull cover of Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire”? The dour reboot is also so mismatched with the lyrics that it serves to highlight their vapidity, something Adams largely manages to avoid on the rest of the album through more full-bodied arrangements.
At least, though, he mercifully omits the hit single’s breakdown section about “the fella over there with the hella cool hair.” It, like the rest of the album, is unlikely to send loyal Swifties flocking to the record store to stock up on old Whiskeytown records, but for those who have followed Adams’s many ups and downs through the years, if they’ve stuck around this long, 1989 is certainly no reason to give up now.