Let’s start with the obvious question. What are we to make of a front-to-back “reinterpretation” of Taylor Swift’s 1989? It’s an album not only still riding high on the charts, but the hugest pop release in recent memory. The cynical take of Ryan Adams’ 1989 damns it for being little more than a stunt. His version of Swift’s blockbuster has already stoked a wildfire of cultural attention. It’s brought Adams more mainstream buzz than he’s generated at any other point in his career. Monetary rewards will, of course, follow soon. His 1989 could just be coattails-riding at its basest, a pure cash grab that’s also a backhand slap at a pop star from a rock artist. This line of argument doesn’t, on the surface, seem unfair or implausible. Before hearing the album, it’s as good a justification for its existence as any.
It’s a harder perspective to hold once you’ve, you know, played the record once or twice. Ryan Adams’ 1989 is an earnest and loving homage to Swift’s masterwork. That gives it a (good enough) reason for being, and quiets suspicions of opportunism. But he takes the project a step further; he digs deeper. For Adams, these songs are new entries in an ever growing American Songbook. They’re treated with reverence, and he approaches inside-out reconstructions with thoughtfulness. 1989 is no gimmick, though it is, by definition, a novelty.
I’d like to hear Ryan Adams’ latest LP from behind a veil of ignorance. Just for one spin, I want to un-know its origins. 1989 would, I think, hold up as an undeniable achievement. Even when knocked down a few notches by his lack of primary authorship, this 1989 towers high in his career. Apart from Swift’s top-notch songwriting, Adams also owes a sonic debt to Bruce Springsteen. While we’re giving full credit, Bono’s plaintive wail probably deserves a small kickback too. Otherwise, 1989 is — without further qualification — the product of Ryan Adams’ singular artistic vision. Who cares if he’s standing atop the shoulders of giants, both young and old?
If anything, 1989 underscores how rewarding an inspired cover can be. There’s the dumb fun of comparing an original to its revamp. I first listened to 1989 with nervous anticipation, something akin to dramatic irony. How would “Shake It Off” and “Out of the Woods” and “Blank Space” fare after Adams has tinkered with them? Do these fabulous tunes know what’s coming at them? (News flash: They not only survive, but sound fine with gorgeous acoustic arrangements.) There’s a separate pleasure, however, one that comes when an artist pulls at a song’s thread and unravels genuine surprise. Who knew the phenomenal “Style” could double as a rousing dance-rock anthem? Or that “Welcome to New York” is one sax solo away from being an outtake from The River? Or that “Wildest Dreams” suggests an opposite reading when given an accelerated pulse? Or that the final stretch of Swift’s album holds so many buried treasures? Who knew? Ryan Adams, obviously.
1989 is marvelous. Except, we knew that already. Ryan Adams unearths new emotional riches, mostly sad ones, from his source material. And his 1989 transcends mere tribute. Let’s be clear, though: Taylor Swift’s pop opus remains superior. Some early reviews have heaped praise on Adams for his supposed deepening, if not rehabilitation, of Swift’s songs. That’s utter nonsense. But it’s not the least bit surprising. A notable music site didn’t bother to review 1989 last year. I doubt its editors will ignore Ryan Adams’ version. So it goes.
In my review of Taylor Swift’s 1989, I wrote that it “isn’t a ‘crossover’ success. It’s the album every subsequent blockbuster must now reckon with.” I’ll make the opposite prediction about Ryan Adams’ 1989. Its crossover success is all but guaranteed. And it’ll be one of a kind. Most rock artists prefer dirt over glitter. That’s OK — plenty of rock critics agree. B PLUS