Cover albums can be a tricky and risky business. The original album or selection of songs have to be good enough for the artist to want to cover, and the secondary artist has to bring something new. You must imbue the songs with a new sense of meaning, unearth it like fresh pearls from the depths of the ocean. It is a paradox, a circle from which the artist might not be able to escape.
Ryan Adams’ new album offers this sort of conundrum. When Adams decided to redo Taylor Swift’s most recent effort, 1989, it came as a bit of a surprise.
For one, 1989 was Swift’s weakest album since her first self-titled one. At times she fell victim to the stereotypes of the genre with lyrics that were bland, repetitive and fell flat, where they used to be razor sharp, (“Welcome to New York,” “All You Had To Do Was Stay,” and “This Love”). While other songs seemed reductive of the pop divas of today—like Lana Del Rey on “Wildest Dreams” and Imogen Heap on “Clean”–rather than the 80s she said that it had been inspired by.
Secondly, this was Swift’s “first official pop album”—as all of the press materials reminded us—and Adams is an Americana superstar, whose musical stylings are more akin to swift’s country music beginnings. How would these songs fare without the feverish synth production of pop juggernauts Max Martin and Shellback and Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff? Or when they were stripped down to Adams’ signature sparse production of simply guitar, piano, and strings?
The answer, like the original album itself, is a mixed one. Sometimes, Adams’ seemingly perpetual melancholy works in his favor and the lush strings add dimension to the songs where there wasn’t much—or times it detracts from the songs original intentions.
One of the songs Adams enhances is the album’s first, “Welcome to New York.” (He keeps Swift’s original listing melody.) Originally, 1989 was lambasted by critics as the gentrification anthem for a city that was once glorified for its soot by Lou Reed. Swift’s original version was bland at best. The strangest lyrics she could muster being “And you can want who you want / Boys and boys and girls and girls” with a synth backing that was one note, hard and industrial, as though she was only looking up at the sky spacer, forgetting that there was warmth and people below.
Adams’ changes all of this with rushing guitar charges and stops and starts. It has a exciting energy of a small town boy exploring the big city for the first time full of hope for the future. His raspy voice that strains into an excited desperation on the lines: “Like any great love / It keeps you guessing / Like any real love / It’s ever changing / Like any true love / It drives you crazy,” reminds you that love, true love, can be with a place, not just with a person, even if that love is unrequited.
Similarly, his take on “Out of the Woods” turns it into a mediation on a relationship past rather than a feverish dream of falling in love. It shows the song in a new light and it’s just as good as the original.
Adams falls flat in some places, like when he takes on “Blank Space.” With a trap inspired beat and snide, sarcastic lyrics about the way the media portrays her, it was the album’s best track. Adams’ version feels like a fingerpicked love song that kind of misses the point.
Similarly, in Adams’ hands the second best track on the record, “Style,” doesn’t hold the excitement of Swift’s James Dean picking her up at midnight.
In the end, Adams’ 1989 is an interesting experiment—for such an alternative icon to take on a pop one. But ultimately, this album just shows how big of a superstar Taylor Swift really is.