It has been popular for indie artists to cover pop songs and “put their own spin” on it since the late 1990s. The way this usually seems to work is the indie band realizes that pop songs can have *gasp* substance, and then take away all of the fun parts so the listener can hear the words, working under the patronizing assumption that listeners are unable to emotionally connect with a song unless there is a guitar in it, or that pop’s brilliance cannot be conveyed unless the singer’s voice is weathered and the only instruments are, as The Guardian put it, “two tin cans and a bit of string.” Ryan Adams, real life troubadour, has taken this whole concept a step further and covered the entirety of Taylor Swifts multi-platinum album, “1989.” Where Taylor Swift used “1989” to officially transform from country-pop to pop queen of the world, Ryan Adams used “1989” to give us yet another run-of-the-mill Ryan Adams album.
Adams has created a fascinating career and gathered a group of loyal followers through a few widely-loved rock albums and a large number of “one-offs,” including his popular cover of Oasis’s Wonderwall in 2004. On one hand, “1989” is an example of the latter, but is presented in the style of the former. It is obvious that this cover was done out of pure admiration for Swift as he sings very carefully and precisely and gives it everything he has. He also, however, reveals how good songs are built.
Each song is like a road on which there are many ways you go, and you have to make the decision as to which direction to take. This includes chords, lyrics, melody lines and arrangements. Swift’s version of the songs go more in the electro-pop direction with clipped, very specific percussion beats and rely on dynamic changes and a repeated melody, giving the album life and spark, which highlight what it means to be young at a specific time—1989. Adams took this and transformed it into an incredibly generic weary and sad sound. To put it into perspective, Bruce Springsteen, who Adams is often compared to, knew that his 1984 album, “Born in the U.S.A.” needed to be synth-pop because the songs demanded it. Ryan Adams should know music well enough to realize when a style fits and when it does not.
Taylor Swift knows her own material very well, and based on the bonus tracks from the original “1989” she knows that her song are incredibly versatile as far as style goes and how big a transformation can be. Adams’s songs are very flat, monotone, and flavorless. When the songs aren’t purely boring, they are damn near aggravating to listen to. Adams tried to make “Blank Space,” which is Swift’s favorite song off the cover, into a heartfelt ballad, but it fell flat. Literally. The melody is thin, rushed, and like all the other songs, very monochrome. “Shake it Off” was transformed from a fun dance song into a grim tone that would have been more appropriate to use when discussing the impact of global warming on the polar bears. Hearing the lyrics, “Haters gonna hate” repeated in this tone is almost laughable. “Style” is very colorful and showy, the album’s equivalent to “Hello Kitty” by Avril Lavigne. It’s practically making fun of you.
Ryan Adams’s “1989” despite its sincerity and technical execution is hollow, simply said. There is no reason for it to exist at all because it doesn’t make any sense, regardless of your demographic, feeling on pop music, feelings on covers, anything you could possibly bring to the table, really. In addition to this, Adams changed the pronouns in many of the songs, which is in my opinion, unforgivable. In short, this album is popular now but ultimately forgettable.
Go Download: Father John Misty’s cover of “Blank Space” sung in the style of “The Velvet Underground.” The song is hilarious as a critique of music, but still musically enjoyable.
Similar Artists: Josh Ritter, Whiskeytown, Wilco