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Ryan Adams’ ‘1989’: A Worthwhile Disappointment

Can you remember the last time people made this big a deal out of a covers record — let alone one that just involved one artist playing a full album by another? Usually these kinds of projects are treated as ‘tweeners at best, “remember that?” historical curiosities like the Walkmen doing Harry Nilsson’s Pussy Cats or Camper Van Beethoven giving Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk a makeover. They’re not generally the kind of records that artists spend an hour talking about with Zane Lowe, with the biggest pop star in the world calling in to offer her take on the reinterpretation.

But Ryan Adams’ run-through of Taylor Swift’s 1989 was something of a perfect media storm for 2015 — a prolific cult artist covering a world-conquering work by a contemporary icon who also happens to be a longtime fan. It felt spontaneous, and genuine on both sides, and created enough of an excitement that an effort initially conceived as a lark — he first recorded his new 1989 on four-track, à la Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, during a particularly vulnerable holiday season alone in Los Angeles late last year — drew full-fledged hype, becoming the most buzzed-about covers LP in recent memory.

The first two tracks, “Welcome to New York” and “Blank Space,” temper that enthusiasm pretty quickly. Sparkling standouts of the original album, the two are leaden in Adams’ hands, as a mid-tempo strummer and ghostly ballad, respectively. On Taylor’s 1989, they served as the announcement of the beginning of her second act as an artist, removing the then-24-year-old from her hometown and country roots and placing her at the doorstep of the Big City and Top 40, twinkling with anticipation and resounding with a newcomer’s confidence. Adams’ weathered vocals can’t generate the same exhilaration (tellingly, he blanches at the high notes of the “New York” chorus), and the now-40-year-old’s world-weariness proves an interesting but inappropriate fit for the songs. At this point, it strikes you that this is Ryan Adams covering a Taylor Swift album, and gifted interpreter of the modern songbook as the former may be, there are some times — as with nearly every covers album in history — where it just isn’t going to work.

There are moments when it does succeed, for sure. “All You Had to Do Is Stay” and “Clean,” two of 1989‘s best the first time around, are convincingly recast as a smoldering heartland cry and a gorgeously sighing alt-country lament. Elsewhere, the singer/songwriter does “Out of the Woods” and “Bad Blood” the favor of stripping their productions’ overbearing hyperactivity, slowing down the former’s exhausting chorus and removing the latter’s sneering obnoxiousness. Even lead single “Shake It Off” makes a surprising amount of sense as an “I’m on Fire”-echoing moan about strangers caring too much about his personal life; which, fair enough. It’s a minor shame that an artist of Adams’ diverse sonic palette didn’t go further to his taste’s margins on a couple of these songs; doing 1989 in the blistering punk style of his own 1984 would’ve been the high-concept capper to this whole exercise, but such digressions would’ve distracted from the album’s melancholy, and his connection with the original 1989. So be it.

But it’s worth recalling that Taylor’s 1989, despite its blockbuster sales figures and generally positive critical reception, was hardly a masterpiece itself. It successfully reframed Swift as a full-stop Top 40 artist — a direction she’d been moving toward for some time — but the expansive pop production smothered its songs as often as it breathed life into them, and the songs, Taylor’s least specifically personal to date, could be hit or miss.  Like the original album, Ryan’s version lags in the second half, as he trudges through too many ballads and unremarkable numbers like “I Know Places” and “How You Get the Girl.”

What’s more, as much dissonance as some of Adams’ renditions may cause, it’s also important to remember that Ryan Adams covering Taylor Swift isn’t really that radical a proposition. Upon hearing Adams’ 1989 for the first time, noted Taylor celebrity pal Lena Dunham tweeted that the project was “Taylor Swift as you never imagined.” Well, no: It wasn’t all that long ago where doing acoustic ballads with a cathartic and country-tinged bent was pretty much Taylor’s M.O; if Swift had recorded her own 1989 five years ago, it’d probably have more strings and less reverb than this, but otherwise it wouldn’t be that far off from what we have here. It’s tempting to imagine what 2010’s Speak Now, both Swift’s greatest collection of songs and her most Adams-like, would’ve sounded like in the latter’s hands, although its relative lack of novelty probably wouldn’t have garnered the same level of public interest.

All this is to say that it would’ve been smart to keep our expectations reasonable for Ryan Adams’ 1989. But to act let down by it feels like an unfair response — the stakes for the project couldn’t be lower, especially for Adams, who by the time you finish reading this sentence will probably have released another two 7″ singles that sound nothing like this album. It’s just another one-off venture from the guy who’s taken over for Robert Pollard as the hardest-working man in rock, a collection that ended up receiving a disproportionate amount of attention due to the planet-sized profile of the other artist involved. A handful of tracks are worthy of adding to Adams’ exponentially expanding canon, and unless you’re the increasingly rare sort who still buys full albums on spec, it’s hard to imagine why you’d really begrudge the existence of the less-inspiring covers. (And despite some speculation that Adams’ 1989 would end up dwarfing the rest of his catalog commercially, the album is currently on track to sell about 50k in its first week — excellent for an artist-to-artist cover album in an incomplete sales week, but hardly a new stratosphere for Ryan, whose 2014 self-titled LP sold 45k in its first week.)

And really, who could say that pop music hasn’t been a more enjoyable place in 2015 for this experiment’s existence? It was a treat to get to follow the slow evolution of the project from a maybe-joking, tossed-off proposition to a studio-produced, artist-endorsed, full-album tribute, with all of the leaked snippets, Taylor gushes, and cover mock-ups building momentum along the way. It’s only gotten more fun since its release, with Father John Misty weighing in with his own satirical cover of “the classic Ryan Adams album 1989,” doing the album’s first two tracks in the style of the first Velvet Underground album, until the late Lou Reed apparently came to him in a dream and told him to delete them — a hilarious and bizarre sequence of singer/songwriter interaction. Who knows what unexpected figure will provide the next link in this chain?

Popular music is always better off when artists from disparate corners are talking to each other: It’s more interesting, more engaging, more connective. That’s what people always overlook when snarking at Taylor Swift for being a famous friend collector, with her countless cameo guests that she is So Excited to bring out on tour. Yes, she’s using them to bolster her own popularity and/or credibility — and inevitably, some will misguidedly suggest that Adams deigning to cover her songs is doing Swift some kind of favor of validation — but she’s also creating community, allowing fans of artists from different demographics to find overlap, and, in some cases, exposing artists to new audiences. In the case of this 1989 hookup, it’s good news for all concerned: Taylor Swift stays in the news cycle and and gets a head-nod from the Magnet set, Ryan Adams has approximately 2500 percent more pre-adolescent fans than he did a few month ago, and we have more good Ryan Adams music, all as a result of this album. Everyone wins. In this year of Bad Blood, it’s a much-needed change-up.