The Key’s review of 1989 by Ryan Adams

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Not really the cover of Ryan Adams' 1989, alas.
Not really the cover of Ryan Adams’ 1989, alas. | via the internet

Let’s face it, covers are rarely good. They normally begin with the best of intentions – take a song you admire, and put your own personal touch on it. However, even with the best intentions, they often come off uninspired and uninteresting.

When Ryan Adams announced he was covering pop superstar Taylor Swift’s album 1989, it was certainly possible to imagine the worst: that it would be some sort of half-hearted attempt at pop chart relevance or ironic clickbaity attention-grabbing. But if you thought that, you’d be wrong; it’s much more than that. This week that album was released, praised and mocked – most amusingly by none other than Father John Misty – and here is how we at The Key feel about it.

First, though, a funny story from our photographer Noah Silvestry:

When I reviewed Alvvays’ Philly show at Union Transfer back in June, I half-sardonically remarked/joked that while I was being jolted about amidst a horde of mosh-happy teenage dudes with a collective crush on Molly Rankin, Taylor Swift was glamming out a sold-out stadium crowd of mostly teenage girls over at the Linc. I concluded the review with the following:
As Ryan Adams once sang so wisely, “When you’re young, you get sad, then you listen to Alvvays”. Or something like that.
Of course, I’d love to believe (and you should too) that by evoking these two artists in a piece about a band that has nothing to do with either, I had some hand – cosmically speaking – in the fruition of this… this bizarre 54 minutes of music.

To cover T-Swift’s 1989, Adams originally wanted to put a stripped down, Stringsteen-styled Nebraska slant on the album, which was probably what the final product grew out of. The final studio version was fully realized with help from La Sera’s Tod Wisenbaker, among others. “Shake it Off,” and “How You Get the Girl” (one of Swift’s favorite renditions) still carry elements of Nebraska and Adams’ melancholy sweet spot.

And yet, Adams still found room to branch out of that sweet spot, embracing the arena-sized chorus of “All You Had to Do is Stay,” and channeling The Smiths on “I Wish You Would” – if they were lending a track to a John Hughes movie.

Sure, some lines can be drawn between Swift’s youthful breakup anthems and the dissolution of Adams’ marriage last year, but more than anything, the project is the result of one artist hearing another’s songs and feeling an immediate need to interpret them.

What’s great about music is its ability to touch people who experience similar emotions but with different backstories and through different lenses. What made this cover album compelling is seeing Adams’ reception to Swift’s music – how he took it and reframed through his own experience. It’s a reminder of music’s universality in a world where we like to place artists in boxes and believe we know them as this thing and only this one thing – an idea Adams tries to debunk time and again (remember Rock n Roll? Remember We Are Fuck You?). This album shows Swift’s thoughts, ideas and emotions can also be shared by her musical polar opposite – we’re not so different after all, stars and civilians alike.

The standout “Blank Space” is a raw, quiet plea putting out an undeniably vulnerable sentiment – the original is the other side of this experience, a bold-faced, unapologetic shout into the void. We get these two juxtaposing ideas that we still easily identify with because we’re human and we envelop both of these experiences.

A notable characteristic of the original 1989 album is that nearly every track on the album is characteristic of a chart-topping single; lovers of the album will notice that their favorite songs constantly shift (ours certainly have). This presents a lofty challenge for Adams; he had to cover songs in powerful enough ways to cement each standalone song as powerful or single-worthy, in addition to giving the entire cover album itself merit among already voracious, bloodthirsty Swifties (see every single one-star iTunes album review).

Adams passes this test with flying colors as only he can, by employing reversals in both musical style and/or mood, changing some of Swift’s most upbeat songs into an relaxed, nearly serene melancholy, and others into the anthem-rock styles of decades prior, and others still into heartbreaking slowdowns, complete with string sections to pull at your already-tired heartstrings.

“Blank Space” fits comfortably into the first category of relaxed melancholy; instead of the textbook 2010’s pop vibe of the original, Adams replaces it with an arrangement anchored heavily on finger-picking and major-thirds harmonizing, reminiscent of Justin Vernon’s Hazeltons or First Aid Kit’s style on The Big Black and the Blue.

“Welcome To New York” and “All You Had To Do Was Stay,” two tracks that are very much cemented in the kid-friendly pop subgenre on the original record, undergo a complete metamorphosis on Adams’ cut; both are now indisputably anthemic, designed to be played loud and often on car radios and speakers in college dorm rooms, and according to Adams, both are perfect fits for the Eddie and The Cruisers 3: Reverb Police soundtrack (addendum: This is not a real movie. Sadly.). These covers give you the harmonies of Bruce Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt, complete with the jangle normally associated with The Queen is Dead.

The truest heartbreakers on the record are “Out Of The Woods” and “This Love,” and while both songs are characteristically sad on the original, Adams turns the sadness up a notch by slowing down the tempo of both songs dramatically, and adding string sections normally reserved for Guns n’ Roses power ballads. The results are stunning; “Out Of The Woods” has undoubtedly cemented itself in 21st century music history as the saddest pop-waltz ever recorded, and “This Love” turned into an unrelenting emotional rollercoaster, heightening the peaks and lowering the valleys to unprecedented levels.

What really takes us aback about the whole genesis, promotion, and release of this album is how much the relationship between Adams and Swift is based on mutual admiration. This album is an anomaly, especially in an era in which a large portion of the discourse has to do with royalties, diss tracks, streaming, and who can break the record for most views on YouTube within the 24 hours of a video release.

Swift can be cited as a longtime lover of Adams’ records, and Adams claims he has been a fan of Taylor since he first heard White Horse, and the two have even collaborated at Pax-Am on an unreleased song. In an industry so deeply rooted in competition, this effort is one of the most perfect examples of synergy among musicians, who normally are hardly ever associated. Refreshing doesn’t quite cut it; if you can think of a word, let us know.

-Rachel Del Sordo, Chris Zakorchemny, Eric Schuman, Sarah Hughes, Noah Silvestry and Cameron Pollack contributed to this review

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