It’s still unusual for any act to do a full-album cover-version tribute; and virtually unheard of for the album in question to be less than a year old, as with this reimagining of Taylor Swift’s multi-platinum 1989. But Ryan Adams has previous form in this regard, having once recorded a blues version of The Strokes’ “Is This It” – although that remained unreleased, just one hillock of the mountain of outtakes facing the singer’s future box-set curator.
The 1989 project is less off-piste than one might think: both performers started out on the country fringes of rock, before navigating more towards the mainstream, so there’s a shared history of sorts here, Adams hunting down the underlying raft of singer-songwriter sensibility beneath the crisp electropop carapace of Swift’s originals. It’s not a task he’s taken lightly, either. There’s no flippancy about his treatment of 1989; instead, as hinted in an Instagram post, Adams has taken material sometimes torn from Swift’s own diary, and covered it “as played by The Smiths” – that is, with due respect for the raw emotions on display.
He also promised what would be the “saddest version of ‘Welcome to New York’ ever – or your tears back”, and just about lives up to that on the opening track here. With his earnest, gritted-teeth delivery over a backdrop of piano and organ, he evokes whole worlds of Springsteen yearning in the song’s surging, youthful desire, bringing the wearied experience of his own crestfallen “New York, New York” to this incomer’s anticipation. Elsewhere, exotic guitar flourishes and peppery percussion – even castanets – lend additional street-operatic drama to the shared escape of “I Know Places”.
Both are utterly transformative, though not quite as much as the album’s other Springsteen gambit, which uses haunted organ and desolate vocal to give the monster hit “Shake It Off” a makeover in the style of “I’m on Fire”, taking it from playground chant to barstool reflection .
Other influential precedents transform songs in equally effective ways. Set to sparse piano and string pad, “This Love” recalls Neil Young at his most fragile, and several songs are profitably re-routed to Adams’ country-rock home turf of Byrdsy arpeggios. Mandolin replaces the “Vienna”-style synth portents of Swift’s version of “Out of the Woods”, while the acoustic strumming on which his version of “Bad Blood” is built suits lines like “What was all shiny, now it’s all rusted”. A similar tone of rustic regret is applied to “Blank Space” by Adams’ intimate, whispered vocal and fingerpicking, with strings and wistful accordion deepening the mood.
Likewise, the clunky line in “Style” about “that James Dean look in your eyes” is ingeniously changed to “that Daydream Nation look in your eyes”, the Sonic Youth reference matching the song’s transformation from scudding electropop to dark outsider rock.
What’s most impressive about Adams’ 1989 is the experienced troubadour’s eye and ear with which he brings out the material’s underlying strengths, finding melancholy currents lurking beneath supposedly upbeat, celebratory songs. It’s obvious what he gets from the association –not just the attention of Swift’s vast fanbase, but also access to the pop smarts of Swedish production maestri Max Martin and Shellback, furnishing him with some of the best tunes he’s had in years. But Swift also gains by the association, which reveals her to be a much more nuanced songwriter than her own album suggested.
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