(image courtesy of ET Online)
When Ryan Adams recorded his own full-length recreation of Taylor Swift’s blockbuster 1989 album, he played around with the melodies and phrasing — and now she’s got his versions of the songs stuck in her head. “I would start kind of singing his new melodies on tour, and I’d have to stop myself because the crowd is gonna be so confused,” she said in an interview with Apple’s Beats 1 radio station Monday. “They don’t know why I’m changing the pre-chorus to ‘Wildest Dreams’ by two notes!”
If she made that same slip-up now, at least a few of them might recognize where those deviant notes were coming from. Adams’s take on her album, also called 1989, shot to No. 2 on the iTunes sales chart immediately upon its Monday release, thanks largely to Swift’s social-media enthusiasm (although the indie-rock hero’s own audience is significant enough that his previous album debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard chart).
It lives up to the buildup, as more of a companion album than a covers project… almost call-and-response, as Swift put it. A collection of songs that in her hands was the sunny pop album of the decade has been strangely but not unnaturally transmuted into the heartbreak album of the year.
Little did Swift know that when she was putting together her most upbeat and least emotionally anguished set of songs to date, she was inadvertently writing Adams’s Divorce Album. Adams was explicit about that in the Beats 1 interview, without ever mentioning his ex, Mandy Moore, from whom he filed for divorce in January, by name. Last winter, “I was going through a difficult time in my life,” he told host Zane Lowe, “and by the time Christmas was rolling around, it was the first real time I was going to be around during Los Angeles during the holidays basically alone on my own… I was totally bummed out.”
His reaction to the emotional crisis: recording a version of “Shake It Off” that seems more about wishful thinking than successfully shedding emotional burdens.
“You can tell he was in a very different place emotionally, when he put his spin on them, than I was,” Swift said. “There’s this longing, aching sadness in them that wasn’t in the original” material. “It’s more of an emotional change from my record… almost like call-and-answer. If you listen to ‘How You Get the Girl,’ I’m singing from the perspective of the girl who has been let down by this guy, and is trying to tell him how to get her back. [Adams is] the guy who has let down the girl he’s in love with and telling everyone else: This is how you lose the person you love. It’s this kind of crazy juxtaposition.”
Asked what her favorite tracks are on the Adams record, Swift said, “It’s a tie between ‘Blank Space’ and ‘How You Get the Girl.’” She’s got good taste in transformative covers: As unassailable as her own album might be for anyone who loves pop music, these are two of the numbers where you can imagine yourself listening to Adams’s versions more in the future. “Blank Space” was conceived as a bit of a joke, and it was a pretty amusing one at that. But Adams strips every last bit of humor out — between removing a couple of the funnier lines and adding a pointed “goddam” — so that it’s no longer a knowing self-parody but an honest exploration of emotional wreckage. Add in some nearly whispered vocals and soft fingerpicking, and suddenly it’s practically an Elliott Smith song.
“How You Get the Girl” was always the easiest song to skip over on the original 1989, as a nearly girl-group-style self-help pep talk that didn’t much betray the sadness buried within nearly every Swift song. Adams finds it, and then some, with “Tell her how you almost lost your mind” sounding suddenly like a feasible madness when it’s delicately intoned over a gently strummed guitar.
Thankfully, Adams’s 1989 isn’t just about stripping things down. “Style” doesn’t have any less energy than the original; it just trades in Max Martin’s crafty neo-disco for slashing guitars. “Wildest Dreams,” a take on her current single, harks back more to the actual calendar year 1989 than Swift ever did… but it’s the 1989 of R.E.M. at their jangly peak. “All You Had to Do Was Stay,” the undersung masterpiece of Swift’s album, and the most truly sad, is suddenly… a great, lost Gin Blossoms track!
If there’s one touchstone for Adams’s 1989, it’s not the group he’s mentioned most often to date — the Smiths — but the Bruce Springsteen of the ‘80s and ‘90s. You hear it straight off as soon as the cheerful mumbliness of the opening track, “Welcome to New York,” suddenly gives way to an anthemic chorus that’s more Boss-ian than anyone but Adams could ever have imagined. When he sings, “The village is aglow,” it’s as if Bruce and Mary somehow improbably followed Thunder Road all the way to Times Square.
And the Springsteen connection gets pretty overt in Adams’s deeply, deeply revisionist take on “Shake It Off,” with opening rim shots and lonesome vocals so right out of “I’m on Fire” that it’s almost hilariously dead-on, except for how dead-serious he is about it. Little synth passages that could have been lifted from other songs on Born in the USA or Tunnel of Love have been interjected after key lines like “That’s what they don’t see,” as if to emphasize that, to Adams, the song is more about feeling misunderstood than the attempt to overcome it.
“I think that song has a tension,” Adams said of “Shake It Off,” explaining how he managed to strip the surface optimism out of it. The word “ironic” will be applied a lot here — especially by indie-rockers who wrongly figure that this whole thing must be Adams’s bizarre art project — but the wisdom of Adams’s approach is that he’s never trying to subvert anything about Swift’s original intentions. He’s just finding the melancholy colors in the corner of the frame and splashing them wider across the canvas.
When her album came out last fall, he said, “You could hear that wave of people going, ‘Is this a dance record? Or retro ‘80s?’ But I was hearing all the emotional content in there.” Not that he thought the gloss was anything that needed to be stripped away: “I really like all the beats on that record a lot,” he told Beats 1. “The aural, sonic geography on the record is really interesting to me…I hear all these things that sound like Queen, [and] the Flash Gordon soundtrack,” pointing out the high-pitched stay! in the chorus of “All You Had to Do Was Stay” as something he found agreeably Mercurial. “But when I got it down to acoustic guitar, I just heard her natural voice right away.”
His fandom goes back to her second album: “'White Horse’ bothers me because it’s a perfect song. It’s almost impossible to sing that chorus, if you can fit it into your range, and not get a lump in your throat… If you look at rock ‘n’ roll, whatever you think that is, it’s about songs. Taylor was this glue. Things were falling apart and Taylor comes along and that song ‘White Horse’ happens… She’s gluing rock ‘n’ roll together every record and keeping everybody on their toes…The only other music that’s ever done that to me is Husker Du and the Smiths.” Stop him if you think you’ve heard this one before… but you haven’t.