Music Review: ‘1989’ by Ryan Adams

By now, you’ve probably read or heard something about how über-prolific rocker Ryan Adams covered Taylor Swift’s 1989 in its entirety. Not surprisingly, Adams’ take on the album is a completely different sound. While T-Swift’s take on dance-pop and synthpop does at times recall the 80s, Adams is more grounded in rock and other styles. Without further ado, here’s a track-by-track comparison of the two.

“Welcome to New York:” Taylor’s version is just irritating, the 80s synth at the beginning being undone by Taylor’s grating vocals and lyrics. She really should’ve known better than try a New York anthem as someone who obviously isn’t from or grounded in New York. Adams starts with the sound of seagulls and the ocean and a more 80s/Springsteen-reminiscent chord progression and feel, and his Springsteen imitation is arguably easier on the ears than Taylor’s cutesy singing.

“Blank Space:” This would’ve been a gem in anyone’s hands, but in Taylor’s hands, it’s absolutely brilliant: a scathing takedown of her public image that shows she can self-deprecate masterfully, aided by the best music video of her career. Adams breaks out a fingerpicked guitar, and delivers a vocal so wounded, the song could actually be sad. With flashes of harmonized vocals in the chorus, and the addition of another guitar and other instruments, it makes you wonder how Paul Simon/Simon and Garfunkel didn’t write this.

“Style:” This single does reasonably feel like it could come from the 80s: it’s a cool, funk-inflected synthpop number that’s well-written enough to not wear out with repeated use. (Side note: was there ever a more 80s lyric than “take me home?”) Adams drives the song into a rockier direction, referencing Sonic Youth and shredding his guitar but not diluting the song’s musicality.

“Out of the Woods”: This one is simply outstanding. Filled with ominous synths out of the early 80s, this dense number should’ve stood a chance to take the pop charts by storm, as opposed to being a promotional song released before the album was released. Adams’ more organic take is airier but less compelling. Without those synths, drum machines and sampled vocals, the song is noticeably less dramatic.

“All You Had To Do Was Stay:” More 80s synths, but this song is easily one of the more lightweight songs on the album. Adams throws in throbbing bass, a backbeat and an overall rockier arrangement, making the song better and more interesting than Taylor’s take on it.

“Shake It Off:” What more is there to say about this song? Well, that the lyrics are aimed directly at her critics, but have the opposite effect of those of “Blank Space.” Mostly, this song is a testament to Max Martin’s pop magic, so it still manages to sound catchy and good when you sing to it. Adams gives us a big surprise: amid a time-keeping rimshot beat, Adams sounds desperate and defensive, but in a broken sense, distinct from Taylor’s needlessly peppy sound.

“I Wish You Would:” Staccato guitars and a rhythmic drum machine pattern are undermined by a rather ineffective chorus. Adams breaks out that acoustic guitar and band and arguably makes it more musical and soothing than Taylor’s original.

“Bad Blood:” Though this number was inescapable during the summer, revisiting the album version now reveals a T-Swift that does flinty better than originally thought, though all that radio play will inevitably affect your opinion of it. However, the song does have the benefit of showcasing Taylor’s improved vocals. Adams is also capable of seething, but his take sounds more like he’s shaking his head and arguing than seeking revenge.

“Wildest Dreams:” Aka the song where Taylor does her best Lana Del Ray impression. Swift doesn’t have LDR’s steamy brand of sex appeal, nor her effortlessly evocative style, but it still works, thanks to Max Martin. Adams turns to country rock and improbably makes it bouncier. Kudos also to Adams for hitting those high notes in the chorus.

“How You Get the Girl:” There’s that acoustic guitar, front and center. It helps that the number is one of the bounciest, especially the chorus. Adams’ version is less upbeat, but that acoustic guitar sure sounds good.

“This Love:” Finally, a ballad. Not only that, it’s lovely: the acoustic guitar mixed with keyboard washes, drum machines and synth bass with Taylor’s sighing vocals further the impression that perhaps she’s underrated as a ballad crafter (this is the only song she wrote by herself). Adams strips down the song greatly, with a piano and his hoarse, expressive voice serving as the bedrock of the song. Not as lovely, but he gets points for effort, and those wails in the bridge are ace.

“I Know Places:” Well, it starts and ends with the sound of a tape machine. But, still not really noteworthy. Adams is more so with his more western-influenced take on it.

“Clean:” This actually might be the best song on the entire album. Buoyed by throbbing synth bass, an innocent-sounding xylophone sound, and Imogen Heap’s resonant vocals, Taylor’s resigned tale of finally being free from a relationship is deeply affecting and it maddens the mind to think that nobody’s told Taylor that this is a natural single. Adams, though, throws the song into 70s territory. What’s disappointing is that he doesn’t understand what made the song so affecting. Had he turned it into a sweeping epic of naked emotion (think The Cure or The Smiths), he might’ve struck gold, but this more sedate take on it doesn’t cut it. It ends with those seagulls and ocean as in the beginning.

In truth, this album isn’t one that can be reviewed normally. Some tracks are undeniably better than the originals, some are worse, and some help show a different side to Swift’s pop creations. If you’re a fervent fan of either camp, you probably won’t go near either album of the opposite artist. That said, give Adams credit for going all-out with this album: he makes it sound better than you think it would.

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