Ryan Adams’ “1989”

Amateur singers covering popular songs on YouTube is one thing. But when a professional musician makes an entire album out of another artist’s work, it’s the real deal. In this case, 40-year-old singer Ryan Adams took on the challenge of recreating Taylor Swift’s electric 1989. Many know Taylor Swift as one of America’s biggest superstars, but some may be unfamiliar with Adams. However, don’t mistake his obscurity for weakness. The North Carolina rocker has led a prolific solo career, having released 15 records in the past 15 years. While Adams and Swift are divergent in genre, popularity, and age, they each possess a gifted talent for making music that appeal to underground and mainstream listeners, respectively. Last year, 1989 solidified Swift’s departure from teenage country idol to full-blown adult pop star, spawning three #1 singles and becoming the best-selling album in the US. But underneath all the commercial success were Swift’s down-to-earth songs, which Adams perfectly underscore on his take of 1989.

Even though the lyrics remain the same, Adams tells an entirely new story, using innovative arrangements, an introspective tone, and a minimalist aesthetic style in contrast to Swift’s polished sound. Swapping the sleek synths of “Welcome to New York” with Bruce Springsteen vibes, Adams opens 1989 on a strong note. On “Blank Space,” Adams transforms the track’s radio-friendly spirit into a downbeat, acoustic-driven jam that captures the real heartbreak of the song’s core. Even Adams’ soft croon, aching with a tinge of sadness, evokes a vulnerability much different from Swift’s harmonies on “Blank Space.” Adams continues to churn the album along with his groovy, atmospheric version of “Style,” which maintains the catchiness of Swift’s version while adding a new layer of sonic depth.

Despite giving 1989 an emotionally compelling thrust, not all of Adams’ reworkings are stellar. Adams’ overly somber rendering of “Shake It Off” is no match to Swift’s sugary electro-pop. His drab reinterpretation of “Bad Blood,” which echoes the opening riff of Oasis’ “Wonderwall” isn’t the strongest of the bunch, though it’s granted a difficult song to cover. But perhaps some of the best tracks off Adams’ 1989 are the least popular ones on Swift’s 1989. For instance, Adams molds “Out of the Woods” beautifully into an enchanting, 6-minute song that’s far more heart-wrenching than Swift’s anthemic original. Adams’ “All You Had to Do Was Stay” and “I Know Places” become breezy ‘80s New Wave throwbacks, reminiscent of U2 and the Cure. His most similar-sounding cover to Swift is “This Love,” but Adams breathes new life into the song, making it into a dreary, Radiohead-sounding piano ballad.   

What is so fascinating about Adams’ version of 1989 is that it makes a powerful statement about music as an art form. It can be crafted into one sound, but also taken apart and reassembled into something completely beautiful and innovative. Without simply regurgitating Swift’s material, Adams elevates 1989 to another cathartic level. As Swift described in a recent interview on Zane Lowe’s Beats 1 radio show, it is not a cover album, but rather a “reimagining” of her songs. When stripping away Swift’s sound, Adams’ 1989 indeed illuminates her songwriting to the point where you can truly hear the bare heart and soul of the source material.

Grade: B+