Laura Green '18Contributing Writer
Ryan Adams, a folk rock singer-songwriter active since the ’90s, released a song-by-song cover of country-gone-pop star Taylor Swift’s latest album “1989” last week. On the surface, it seems an unlikely pairing, but Adams brings attention to Swift’s lyrics with his stripped-down instrumentals and haunting voice.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Adams said, “As I was singing those songs, they mattered to me as much as any of my own songs ever did. Or I wouldn't have sung them.” Adams approached the project with sincerity and passion, something he does best.
Adams recently separated from his wife of almost six years, Mandy Moore. He was inspired to create this album last Christmas when confronted with the idea of spending the holidays alone. Taking inspiration from his failed marriage, the singer unmasked the broody roots of Swift’s glossy pop songs.
Underneath the catchy pop beats, the original “1989” is full of beautiful sadness. Swift writes about her breakup, moving to a new city and a “frenemy” feud. Adams took these very personal topics and mixed them with the sounds of Springsteen and Morrissey. As a result, it has much more of a ’80s feel than the original does.
I was worried that “Shake It Off,” one of the more popular songs from Swift’s album, would sound artificial after adapted to to Adams’s style.
However, there was a profound sense of pain and quiet ease to the song. It starts with a single drum beat, much like the raucous beginning to Swift’s version. The slower, quieter beat sounds like a drumstick absentmindedly tapping on the table while Adams starts to sing about his shortcomings. It sounds like the end of a long, lonely night with no one else around. This song, more than any other, encapsulates Adams’s vision for the album in its moody portrayal of moving on after heartbreak.
Despite the strangeness of hearing such recognizable lyrics in Ryan Adams’ Bob Dylan-esque voice, “Blank Space” was my favorite of Adams’s “1989.” It saved a song I had grown tired of months ago. In Swift’s version, it’s about the optimism of a new relationship but also the remembered mistakes and pain of the past. Adams brings all of that to the foreground with his acoustic rendition, except the “blank space” starts to sound more like an empty void than potential for something new.
For those who don’t feel like crying today, “Welcome to New York” retains Swift’s optimism toward new beginnings but takes out the artificial synth beats of the original. Just like in the rest of the album, Adams lets the lyrics shine. The upbeat cover sounds like the outro of an ’80s movie when we know everything will be okay, like the happy ending to Adams’s story. “Style” also stands out from the rest as more of a rock song. It has the sexiness and passion of a love power ballad, but it errs on the side of disingenuous.
He snuck in a lyric change as a way to reference Sonic Youth’s 1988 album with the line, “You’ve got that Daydream Nation look in your eye.” This further contributes to this album as offering to the ’80s, a way of saying thanks to the formative music of Adams’s teenage years.
Swift completely embraced the project from the beginning, as eager for its release as any fan. In a tweet, she said, “Ryan's music helped shape my songwriting. This is surreal and dreamlike.” She was also very enthusiastic upon hearing the end product. Zane Lowe interviewed her and Adams on the Beats 1 radio show, where she said, “They’re not cover songs. They’re reimaginings of my songs, and you can tell that he was in a different place emotionally than I was. There’s this beautiful aching sadness and longing in this album that doesn’t exist in the original.”
Despite taking on such an ambitious project, Adams already finished his next album. Hopefully, the exposure from “1989” will bring attention to his own songwriting. The timing of the “1989” release was clearly a marketing move, but the album itself is incredibly authentic. It’s an odd concept for an album: inspired by Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” written by Taylor Swift and sung by Ryan Adams. Critics of the album have said the convoluted idea makes the album seem too forced. They’re right; it shouldn’t work. But it does.