Ryan Adams and Taylor Swift: Unlikely Kindred Spirits on “1989”

Ryan Adams by Andy Roo / Taylor Swift by Tony Shek

“Band-aids don’t fix bullet holes/You say sorry just for show.” To Swift, a song about the casualties of young love. To Adams, a song about the panic of realizing differing levels of emotional investment.

RyanAdams1989-1200Album Art courtesy of the Artist

When Taylor Swift released 1989 in August of last year, the music world perked up. The album is more than a stark departure from the singer’s country roots: it is an astoundingly well-produced pop album, a collection of songs somehow both similar and eclectic. Moreover, while 1989 is the Reading, Pennsylvania native’s first definitive foray into the genre, it is a planting of the flag, a claim on the territory. Swift is to pop music as Napoleon was to France. With that in mind, it seems entirely reasonable to dismiss any attempt to emulate Swift right away. When something is declared unique, it is no longer by the next year. The Beatles and Rolling Stones were sensations for a finite amount of time, until they became the standard. The same thing happened with Nirvana and Pearl Jam, with David Bowie, the Smiths, and countless others. So, when it came out that someone was going to release a song-for-song cover of this contemporary masterpiece, it shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise. Pale imitation had become as much of a staple of pop music as predictable melodies and ostentatious hooks. Complete reproduction just seems like the natural next progression.

For Ryan Adams to attempt something like this is brave and almost unprecedented. Some might disagree with the former and it’s true; perhaps using the word “brave” in regards to someone recording a pop record is an overstatement. On the other hand, Adams took an entire album with a sound entirely different from his own and gave it new meaning, with nothing but melody and inflection. That speaks not only to Adams’ musical ability, but to Swift’s writing ability. A 25-year-old woman was able to write songs that were not only hits on the pop charts, but songs that were relatable to a 40-year-old man going through a divorce.

One of Swift’s best non-singles, “Out of the Woods,” unsurprisingly co-written and produced by one of pop music’s pre-eminent voices in Jack Antonoff, is also a highlight of Adams’ record. Ditto for “This Love,” a song that for Swift was wistful and reflective, but for Adams became a sonically beautiful, piano-driven melody and an insight into the mind of a dejected man who may have just let his last chance at happiness slip away. The trend continues throughout the record, but perhaps never more noticeably than on “Shake It Off,” one of Swift’s biggest hits to date. Adams completely transforms a pump-up pop song into a slower, more contemplative, melancholic ballad. Themes of inspiration turn to redemption. The lyrics don’t change, mind you. The same words in different hands just don’t weigh quite the same.

Antonoff says as much in an interview with Rolling Stone on the topic of “Out of the Woods.” The Bleachers frontman loves the song for how it can work on a personal level while simultaneously resonating with countless others in different forms. He remarks that “parts of it read like a diary, and parts of it read like something 100,000 people should be screaming all together.”

Just as Swift’s original album will prove to stand the test of time, a seminal pop album in an era of flash-in-the-pan hits and low expectations, Adams’s duplicate is a triumph not for pop music, but for music in general. His rendition of the anthems of an unlucky-but-still-lucky in love pop sensation is not perfect. Some songs blend together in a way Swift’s originals do not and the production value is not quite on the same level. Even so, Adams’ attempt at uniqueness through imitation demonstrates the ways in which music can still be transformative. Music has been around as long as people and, like people, its core is evolutionary, not revolutionary. Adams, if nothing else, is showing the malleability of themes and genres in music.

 

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