Alt-country star Ryan Adams has done some surprising things over the years: He married pop star Mandy Moore. He finally caved and sang Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ‘69” in concert. And now he has released a song-by-song cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 album.
Adams is no stranger to brilliant covers; his rendition of Oasis’ “Wonderwall” was praised by the songwriter (and notoriously grumpy) Noel Gallagher as being the “only person who ever got that song right.” But covering an entire album by one of the biggest pop stars on the planet could’ve been one curve-ball too many in an already eclectic career.
Interestingly, the project is not meant to be ironic. Germinating as a way to cope with his recent divorce from Moore, Adams intended to record the songs the way Bruce Springsteen recorded his Nebraska album, imbuing them with a staid solemnity that Swift’s songs only previously hinted at. Moreover, Swift blessed the project; Adams, in turn, regularly informed her on his progress. The almost-collaborative effort was then teased with well-timed updates and tweets, much like the roll-out for Swift’s album. As a result, Adams generated enough buzz to make his album a surprising, noteworthy addition to the Fall-album release schedule.
As for what the album sounds like: This should go without saying, but be warned that it sounds nothing like the polished glisten of Swift’s version. Instead, Adams boils the songs down to their most essential elements, bringing the lyrics and the underlying emotional currents to the forefront to carry the songs along. It’s a jarring experience for those accustomed to the radio-friendly Swift versions, but your patience will be rewarded if you stick through the album.
By removing the pop elements of the songs, Adams exposes the inherent sadness that is so common in most of Swift’s songs. Take a song like “Bad Blood,” for instance. While we all know it’s (allegedly) about her beef with Katy Perry, the original anger and pain of Swift’s betrayal were buried under the subsequent media brouhaha and the slick, cameo-heavy music video. Adams is able to divorce the song from all of these extra elements, returning it to a lament about a friendship turned sour. It’s surreal to listen to Adams’ stripped-down version when you consider how many extra layers have become attached to the Swift version. Compare the two versions:
Furthermore, Adams is convincing: his version of Swift’s current single, “Wildest Dreams,” is sung with such sincerity that you’d think he wrote it if you didn’t already know better.
Ryan Adams being Ryan Adams, there are a few notable deviations from the honest, minimal vibe: He goes ‘80s stadium-rock for “Style,” and it sounds like a perfect concert encore.
And “Shake It Off” comes across like a joke. Try as he might, there’s no way to bring earnest, heartfelt emotion to a lyric like “Baby, I’m just gonna shake it off.” It’s fun as a novelty song but nothing more.
And that cuts to the core of what this album does so effectively: It rises above what it should be. The whole concept obviously reeks of novelty. After all, there’s an intrinsic curiosity in hearing familiar songs reworked by someone from a different genre. But the album works on its own merits, bridging the gap between the super-pop fans that Swift is courting, and the cool hipster crowd that Adams normally attracts. It likely won’t win new fans on either side. And Adams won’t ever live it down (he’s forever damned to answer questions about when he’s going to redo another Taylor Swift album). But as a daring re-imagining of one of the most popular pop albums this decade, it’s a solid effort. Shake it off, indeed!