Saturday, March 26, 2016

Ryan Adams - 1989

At first blush, the thought of Ryan Adams covering any Taylor Swift album—let alone her poppiest album—doesn't make much sense at all. Swift's 1989 is one of the biggest albums of the decade so far, a seemingly universal pop record that has sold more than 8.6 million copies worldwide. Ryan Adams, meanwhile, is an idiosyncratic folkie and classic rock geek who seems precisely like the kind of person who would scoff snobbishly at Swift's considerable accomplishments as an artist. Unsurprisingly, when Adams tweeted late last year about reinterpreting 1989 as a dark folk record (or something along those lines), not a lot of people took him seriously.

Fast forward to September 21st, and Adams' version of 1989 is one of the top-selling albums on iTunes and a trending topic on social media. Swift's version of 1989, meanwhile, is just shy of 11 months old, but its fifth single is nevertheless skirting the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. The album, it seems, has accomplished something that is borderline impossible in today's music market: longevity. 1989 was a monocultural triumph in an age where monoculture doesn't really exist anymore. And by revisiting and reinventing the album, Adams has helped us to understand why 1989 resonated with so many people.

Needless to say, Adams' version of 1989 doesn't sound all that much like Swift's. Where the original album was loaded with synths, punchy beats, and huge pop production, Adams scales everything back and lets the songs breathe. According to a recent interview Ryan did with Zane Lowe of Beats 1, he originally envisioned the record as a four-track recording, "Nebraska style." Unsurprisingly, quite a few of the songs are sparse, with little more than voice and acoustic guitar (or, in one case, voice and piano). Even the more full-bodied numbers tend to sound a bit desolate, with their bassy demo-ish feel and reverb-heavy production. Hell, "Shake it Off," once an infectious bopper about not giving into the haters, gets transformed into a not-so-distant cousin of Springsteen's forebodingly dark "I'm on Fire."

That's not to say that Adams just "sad bastardizes" all of Swift's poppy creations, though. Anyone can take an upbeat pop song and turn it into a down-tempo dirge. Not just anyone can draw new themes and nuances out of the songs they covers, and that's what Adams does here. He's not trying to be the dude who ironically covers pop music originally performed by a female. Instead, he's an artist who saw 1989 for what it was—a truly great and surprisingly deep set of songs—and wanted to pour himself into those songs, heart and soul.

For the most part, Adams transforms 1989 into a record about divorce. In January of this year, Adams and his now ex-wife Mandy Moore publicly announced that they had decided to end their marriage. Ryan is not and has never been the kind of guy to speak about his personal life publicly. The subject is a well-known no-fly zone in interviews, and even in Adams' songs, it's always been tough to separate the fiction from the non-fiction. Upon further examination, Ryan's latest record, last year's underrated self-titled triumph, was at least partially about a relationship in crisis. But Adams has always been someone who wants his listeners to interpret his songs in their own ways, and as a result, he's often dodged specificity in pursuit of universality.

Ironically, 1989 might be the purest exorcism of personal demons in Adams' entire discography—give or take a Heartbreaker. When Adams sings some of these songs, you can hear the rawness and personal struggle in his voice. "When you're young, you run," he wails over and over again on his remarkable cover of "This Love," reinterpreted here as a broken piano ballad sung from a darkened stage. "Remind her how it used to be, with pictures in frames, with kisses on cheeks" he romanticizes in "How You Get the Girl," now playing as a lonesome reflection on a relationship doomed to smash upon the rocks. "I wish that you knew that I'll never forget you as long as I live," he sings on "I Wish You Would," which—unlike Swift's version—offers no hope that the other person is ever coming back. Ryan may not have written these words himself, but he sure as hell means them. And considering the recent events in his life, it's pretty damn clear who he means them for.

Some Swift fans might be confused about how dark and anguished Adams' interpretation of 1989 is. After all, the original 1989 is a world-conquering pop album: it's meant to be a celebration, right? Well, not really. 1989 might play well at parties because the songs are catchy, beat-driven, synth-heavy, and culturally ubiquitous, but the lyrics to those songs were always deeper than their Max Martin-approved arrangements hinted at. Indeed, if you spend much time with the lyrics of 1989—or if you read my review from last October—you'll realize that Taylor wasn't feeling too celebratory when she wrote that album. On the contrary, 1989 is a record loaded with insecurity, heartbreak, frustration, anger, betrayal, and regret. It comes from the pen of a person who has lost her naivety and optimism; a person afraid she can't make a relationship last longer than a few months; a person who, despite all her own urgings to "shake it off," is scared as hell that she might always be alone. Adams pulls out that fragility and brings it to the forefront, and the result is not only a borderline masterpiece for him, but also clear proof that Swift wrote something truly complex, mature, and transcendent with 1989.

Of course, Ryan Adams is a quirky dude, and there's plenty of room for him to have fun between all the emotional sucker punches he throws here. His take on "Welcome to New York," for instance, turns one of Swift's least effective songs into a Springsteen-esque barnburner, circa The River. Elsewhere, he morphs "Wildest Dreams" into a jangly R.E.M. cut (I'm thinking an outtake from Document), references Sonic Youth in a male-appropriate rewrite of "Style" ("You've got that Daydream Nation look in your eye…"), and turns "Bad Blood" into what it was surely meant to be in the first place: a song about how much Liam and Noel Gallagher hate each other's guts (the song's acoustic intro feels like a deliberate nod to "Wonderwall"). My one complaint about 1989 might be that Ryan doesn't have enough fun with it. In particular, his slow, plodding cover of "Blank Space" foregoes the opportunity for Ryan to sing and savor a line like "Darling I'm a nightmare dressed like a daydream." But that's a minor complaint for a record where every other cover is a breath of fresh air.

There will, inevitably, be conversations about which version of 1989 is better. I've already seen comments from Taylor haters saying that that Ryan "brought depth to shallow pop songs," which is, inherently, 1) an impossible thing to do, and 2) a stupid thing to say. The depth was already there, and the only reason Ryan Adams' version of 1989 is so good is because the original songs were already damn sturdy in the first place. Ultimately, though, conversations about which version is better are superfluous and miss the point. Taylor's original 1989 is made even more interesting and fun to discuss by Ryan's overtly classic rock-ified version, while Ryan's version is intriguing as both a personal expression and a reaction to one of the biggest albums we're likely to see come along in our lifetimes. Taylor's version might work better for the party, and Ryan's might be ideal for the morning after or the late night drive home, but both albums are most effective when you look at them as an intrinsically linked endeavor.

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