Ryan Adams – 1989

9/21 via Pax-Am Records

4/7 stars

How ironic is it that one of Ryan Adams’ most enduring recordings is a cover? For a guy that’s notoriously prolific (and prolifically uneven), he might be most revered for his iconic, haunting reworking of the Oasis classic “Wonderwall” that came out on Love Is Hell way back in 2004. For many, that’s his pinnacle: distilling a singalong anthem into a dark, hushed whisper, peeling back the song’s preening confidence and twisting it into something deeply painful. It might’ve been the pinnacle of Adams’ sad-sack, drugged-up period. Maybe it was its nadir. Either way, his version is deeply moving, and stands among his most notable recordings.

So Adams knows the value of a well-done cover song as much as anyone, which makes his decision to finally release his highly anticipated re-imagining of Taylor Swift’s super mega pop smash 1989 less surprising on its surface. From a cynical, marketing standpoint, it’s a canny move. Pull this off and Adams immediately expands his potential audience and gains more media traction than he’s had since 2001, and probably more. Of course, he’d need Swift’s blessing (she LOVES this thing). He’d need to build anticipation (those Instagram teasers were pretty tantalizing). And above all, he’d need to make sure this thing was GOOD. If this album were just a sensitive white dude playing acoustic guitar, it might’ve haunted the rest of Adams’ still-vibrant career.

Fortunately, we find out within the first 30 seconds that Adams’ 1989 is certainly not that. And while Adams himself states his take on the album would be in the style of alt-rock icons the Smiths, “Welcome to New York” is pure Springsteen cinematic grandeur, from the opening chord crashes to the bombast of the chorus. “Stay” has been morphed into a late-night disco rock strut, with Adams snarling “we never go out of style” with the brashness that line deserves. The chime-y guitars that adorn “Wildest Dreams” are the most obvious callback to the Smiths, while the dusty amble of “Clean” could’ve easily made it onto 2014’s Ryan Adams.

But it’s his takes on 1989‘s biggest singles that elevated Adams’ versions into their own level. “Blank Space” has been recast as an intimate acoustic ballad, his fragile falsetto framing the song as a poignant paean to his own inability to connect emotionally. The ubiquitous, near-perfect pop of “Shake It Off” has been totally re-imagined as a somber, muted send-up of Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire”. Indeed, both that track and Adams’ “Shake” feature muted guitar arpeggios, warbly keyboards, light percussion, and a mid-tempo shuffle that stands in direct opposition to Swift’s original “Shake”, which is all glossy, joyful exuberance. But where her version stood defiant against detractors, Adams’ reading allows the insecurity and doubt lying just below the surface to creep into the cracks. And Adams, once considered an easy target for media diatribe, must’ve reveled in the opportunity to dig into a song that details life in the public eye in such a succinct, simple way. He does not, however, get down to this sick beat. (On a similar note, Adams also omits the bridge on “Blank Space”). “Bad Blood”, the first song released ahead of the full album, is a shimmering reworking of what might be (to me, at least) the worst of Swift’s 1989 smash singles. But Adams lets the song breathe, adding guitar counter-melodies and a coda that positively sparkles. It also, unfortunately, amplifies the “bandaids don’t fix bullet holes” line that just sounds like it’s trying too hard. It’s the only blemish on what might be the best track on this album.

But like that line on “Bad Blood”, Adams’ re-engineering of this album has the unfortunate consequence of highlighting some of the trite, poorly-executed writing of the original. “Welcome to New York”, overtures to the LBGT community and all, has some pretty brazenly naive lines in it. “Out of the Woods” chorus never really ends up anywhere, and the orchestrated outro that adorns Adams’ version only makes it feel more bloated. “I Wish You Would” is totally forgettable, and his solo piano take on “This Love”, while gorgeous, feels silly and melodramatic. A line like “this love is good, this love is bad” sounds silly no matter how much emotional heft Adams or Swift manage to give it.

Still, what makes this album work as a whole is just how serious Adams is about these songs. He connects to them in a way that I (and probably most others) didn’t think was possible. Adams is a quirky, adorably weird 40-year-old man with lots of critical acclaim. Swift is a 25-year-old pop wunderkind with the wind of the mainstream at her back. But the similarities are there: both have a complicated relationship with country music; both have been in high-profile relationships; both have been subject to unfair media coverage. To say Adams sees a little bit of himself in Swift might sound strange, just as it might sound a little strange that Adams’ “grown-ass men dork friends” got a little teary when he started singing these songs. But something clicked for him, and you can hear his sincerity and admiration of Swift’s craft all over this record.

There have been a lot of different talking points on this album. Some say it’s far better than the original and some say it’s the worst thing they’ve ever heard. Some people criticized Adams for changing the pronouns in the songs to reflect his own gender and sexual preference. Others questioned whether or not we “need” a Ryan Adams cover of 1989. It’s up to you to figure out where you stand on those issues, or if you think these are issues at all. But Adams is a critically-acclaimed singer-songwriter with his own quality studio, a bunch of friends that love to play music, and his own insatiable hunger to record and create. He created something he loved and had the capacity and courage to put it out there, no matter how meme-worthy or clickbait-inducing the idea seemed to be. If this album were a Ryan Adams original, it might rank in the middle tier of his work; not his best or most essential listening, but certainly not his worst. But it was a labor of love, and that much is evident throughout.

The “Wonderwall” cover was released on Love Is Hell, a record that was at times both murky and sparkly, and always felt very badly beaten. It’s a little too long and sorta uneven, but it also has some of Adams’ most severely gorgeous songs. It was also the record that signaled the shift away from the Americana and country of Adams’ first few recordings and into the more shimmery ’80s sound that he sounds most comfortable (if not his best) in. For Swift, 1989 is a very similar beast. We don’t know what Swift’s future will sound like; what we do know is that there’s a blueprint she can use to get there if she so desires. A fork in the road that leads out of the woods.

Maybe all she needs now is her own “Wonderwall”.