Taylor Swift is 25 years old and a former teen country sensation turned mega-pop star. Every love song she sings is its own blind item, leading to speculation over which famous boyfriend inspired what song. Full of catchy melodies, radio ready singles, and just enough real-life lyrical content, her most recent record, 1989, and Swift are everywhere right now; releasing big-budget, high concept music videos, and bringing literally everyone famous with her at every stop1 of her worldwide tour.
Ryan Adams is 40. He began his music career, like Swift, in country, after a short stint in punk rock; with the band Whiskeytown, he became an alt-country god. In 2000, he released his solo debut, Heartbreaker, and in 2001 he released Gold, an album I purchased at a Best Buy in Fairfield, California on the day of its release in 2001. A prolific songwriter, Adams sings, plays a number of instruments, and mines his own life for songwriting material. Label problems and his own excessive creativity, alongside drug issues, an inner-ear disorder called Ménière’s disease, and an extremely volatile personality (he caused conflict with Janis Ian, of all people, and in one well-documented incident, he ordered a man to leave a show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium for calling out a request for a Bryan Adams song) have all contributed to Adams’s lack of mainstream success. Despite breaking up with his wife of six years, Mandy Moore, Adams has been on fairly good behavior recently, even covering Bryan Adams songs on his tour as a nod to his mellower persona. In one of the oddest, yet most charming things he’s done to date, Adams dropped a full-length cover album of Taylor Swift’s 1989 last night.
The inevitable reaction to Ryan Adams covering Taylor Swift in this way is to look at their differences—the gorgeous pop singer versus the difficult singer who never quite settled on a genre—but the two share similar sensibilities as songwriters and performers, and Adams has always been a devoted cover artist. The creation of the album will scream “stunt,” to many, and they won’t be wrong. Adams is something of a stunt guy, the type who had so many albums in the pipeline his beleaguered record label eventually forced him to compile them into one album (Demolition). But it is not a stunt that disrespects Swift or her songs. If anything, the Adams version of 1989 is a showcase for Swift’s talents as a songwriter, one that displays the universal nature of certain subjects. Swift’s version of “Blank Space” is a cheeky nod towards her reputation as a serial dater who uses her relationships for song lyrics, while Adams’ “Blank Space” is a finger-picked, half-whispered ode to a failed relationship he’ll also mine for song content, and both are completely listenable.
Is there a point to Adams’ version of 1989? Not really, but there are more baffling and less successful items in his back catalog, and even as a longtime fan who had to go to usenet to download several of his scrapped albums, this is more listenable than some of his punk rock attempts. His version of “Out of the Woods” strips away the synth elements on the Swift album and delivers a song that would have easily been at home on his Love is Hell album, so good it’s easy to forget the song is apparently about Harry Styles of One Direction. Meanwhile, his version of “Shake it Off” borrows a backing track that sounds, I swear to god, borrowed from Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.” His version of “Bad Blood,” too, begins with a few of the distinctive chords from “Wonderwall”–another song Adams famously covered.
Being a Ryan Adams fan means spending time chasing down singles and rarities, means watching him shapeshift across genres, picking up bands and dropping them, always changing, always in flux. The stereotypical record collecting obsessive has met their match in Adams, whose output may lapse from time to time but who always roars back with more, new, different. In contrast to Swift, who often comes across as a put together young woman with total control over her image and attitude, Adams is the troubled type, always searching for something else. But listening to Swift’s lyrics as interpreted by Adams, you could almost imagine Swift living her musical life in a similar way–trying new things, always restless, always moving forward, discarding the things (like country twang) that no longer suit her, and producing, producing, producing.
There is a tendency, because Swift is young, very beautiful, and writes songs about her love life that are played on pop radio, to dismiss her music and her songwriting. There is no sense here, and there has been no indication in Adams’ documentation of his own process of covering her album, that Adams is mocking 1989, dismissing Swift, or being “ironic.” The project is quirky and probably inessential, doomed to be another one of the oddities that litters Adams’ career, but it is at all times a tribute, from one artist to another.
Who is this album for: People who haven’t yet realized Taylor Swift is a genius, aging alt-country fans who used to have subscriptions to No Depression magazine (guilty), people who are making long cross country drives after leaving behind their one true love.
Can you dance at your desk to this album: This album is not as desk-danceable as the Swift original.
Standout tracks: Out of the Woods, Wildest Dreams, I Wish You Would, Blank Space
Editor’s note: #NotAllStops. The Minnesota show had no guest at all and I’m still sad. ↩