Ryan Adams’s Stellar ‘1989’ Turns Taylor Swift Into Springsteen
The moody singer-songwriter’s Swift cover album is a match made in heaven for hopeless (new?) romantics.
The unexpectedly genius pop merging no one asked for has finally arrived: Ryan Adams’s full-album cover of Taylor Swift’s fifth LP, 1989, hit iTunes overnight. Both songwriters have a knack for penning lyrics both personal and relatable that feed into the mythos of their personas: Ryan’s the forever down-and-out ex-country rocker (with “sci-fi metal” tendencies) and Taylor is the world-dominating pop star next door. Hearing Adams’s covers of Swift’s songs is a mixed experience—some improve greatly on the originals, others were better left in Swift’s capable hands—but a strain of defiance runs through: Adams for covering a singer many of his fans likely hate, and Swift for taking back and subverting the media narrative the Internet built around her. When asked why he decided to cover the album, Adams told radio host Zane Lowe that he was “going through sort of a difficult time in my life” after he flew back to L.A. around Christmas time. (He didn’t clarify, but he and Mandy Moore announced their separation after five years together in January. Cue my never-ending tears.) He also said he wanted the album to sound like “Bruce Springsteen Nebraska. Just acoustic guitar, bunch of spring reverb, just me.” In that, he succeeded. He turns several of 1989’s pop confections into heavily Springsteen-influenced Americana rock anthems, to dazzling effect. It doesn’t work on every song—some songs are better left glittering and bold, without the anguish of Adams’s tortured voice and guitar—but decide for yourself below.
Without further ado, we present Adams’s 1989 in its entirety. Welcome to New York
Taking the sweatshirt print Swift wore on 1989’s album cover to heart, Adams opens his tribute with the cawing of seagulls. His take on “Welcome to New York,” Swift’s clunky ode to bright-eyed and bushy-tailed New York City transplants, transforms the song into a full-on Americana anthem. This comes with the added bonus of forcing you to imagine Bruce Springsteen putting his bags down on apartment floors and marveling, wide-eyed, at all the city girls-who-like-girls and boys-who-like-boys. Blank Space
Adams dials up the seduction levels of Swift’s lyrics about reckless love with half-whispered vocals and acoustic guitars, creating an air of both intimacy and regret. Whereas Taylor’s take on the song was a brilliantly defiant takedown of the narrative gossip blogs have assigned to her dating life, Adams’s is an actual, sincere apology to future lovers for the hurt he thinks he’s bound to bring. Both artists have been through a number of painful public breakups—Adams’s five-year-long marriage to Mandy Moore ended just this year—making his decision to internalize blame, rather than defy it, all the more telling. And sad. :( Style
Swift’s “Style” was by far one of the strongest tracks on 1989: a shimmering, tightly orchestrated, addictive pop song, all the more significant for the come-hither quality it drew out of America’s most chaste pop star. It would have been hard if not impossible for Adams to improve on the original, so he went the opposite route: he turned “Style” into the most aggressively cheesy ’80s rock song imaginable, perfect for long drives in red convertibles with the top down and the wind in your hair. Adams also flips pronouns and changes the lyrics a lot here, as he apparently feared that describing himself as a “good girl in a tight little skirt” might give people the wrong idea. Personally, we prefer a “James Dean daydream” to a “daydream nation,” thanks very much. This was better left in Swift’s hands.
Out of the Woods
“Out of the Woods” is Swift at her most vulnerable, relaying her experiences in the worst type of relationship—that kind where you’re never quite sure if you’re on solid footing with the object of your affections. This sort of song is what Ryan Adams was born for. He packs a gut-punch of heartbreak, dialing the song down to play to a room instead of a stadium. Then he escalates into full-blown desperation as he repeats again and again, “Are we out / Are we out / Are we out of the woods?” And the strings-laden coda will melt even the coldest hearts. Simply put, this is a great song.
All You Had to Do Was Stay
This is the blandest of Adams’s reinterpretations on the album, with little about the meaning or emotions of “All You Had to Do Was Stay” changed from Swift’s original. Acoustic guitar, heavy reverb, Adams’s voice—it’s exactly what it sounds like, no more, no less. Skip.
Shake It Off
Instead of the obnoxiously jarring cymbal-crash Swift opted for in 1989’s first single, Adams opens “Shake It Off” slowly, with the metronome tapping of a drumstick followed by low, creeping synths. He airs out this formerly awful pop confection by cutting the tempo in half and giving it a quietly ominous rather than confrontational feel. And the twinkling electronic notes sprinkled throughout are just magic.
Also, since Adams’s goal here is not worldwide radio domination, he spares us the five-time repetition of “play” at the end of “players gonna play” and “hate” at the end of “haters gonna hate,” a tactic deployed by Swift to achieve maximum earworm effect. The result is a version of “Shake It Off” 10 times looser and more enjoyable. Five stars.
I Wish You Would
Ryan Adams singing a song called “I Wish You Would” is a secret pleasure in itself for fans of his Heartbreaker / “Come Pick Me Up” era. His take on Swift’s daydream about making up with an ex-lover is a grand and cinematic ballad, driven by lovelorn steel guitars. The result is lovely.
Of all the songs on 1989, “Bad Blood” comes with the most baggage for Swift, in that everyone with an Internet connection knows the embarrassingly lame story behind it. But all the over-the-top melodrama of Swift’s dig at a former #squad member who shall not be named (it’s Katy Perry) gets stripped away in Adams’s version. He subtracts the explosions and bad wigs in favor of simple emotion, with the natural, wounded quality of his voice lending itself perfectly to the song.
Tempered with the requisite melancholy (“Heaven can’t help me now, nothing lasts forever,” are lyrics so well-suited to Adams’s sadsack shtick it’s hard to believe he didn’t write them himself), “Wildest Dreams” and its quiet acceptance of the fleeting nature of a relationship sounds almost serene through Adams’s voice. And lyrics that, for Swift, felt like new, welcome acknowledgements of her own sexuality (“tangled up with you all night, burning it down”) feel like good ol’ dirty rock-and-roll with Adams. A+.
How You Get the Girl
On Swift’s 1989, “How You Get the Girl” felt almost like a Fearless-era throwback, a simple expression of a Love Story-esque romantic ideal. As reinterpreted by Adams, it’s a self-lacerating dissection of his own mistakes in a relationship, or how he lost the girl. A thundering bass drum adds an element of danger to the calm of Adams’s acoustic guitar, before strings sweep in and break our sappy hearts into pieces.
Is that…dare we say it…hope in Adams’s voice? His take on “This Love,” Swift’s cathartic happily-ever-after story about a lost love returned for good, opens with the briefest invocation of John Lennon piano chords before settling into a lovely oceanside lullaby. If you really want to torture yourself, imagine Adams thinking of Mandy Moore (RIP their insanely adorable marriage) while he sings. It will end you.
I Know Places
Instead of conjuring images of paparazzi flashes and ball gowns, Adams takes Swift’s celebrity fantasy about remaining hidden in a 24/7-surveillance world and turns it into a classic Clint Eastwood Western movie showdown, with jingling, spur-like percussion and angry, twanging guitars. The rhythm of Adams’s voice as he belts out “baby, I know places we won’t be found” mime the rhythm of riding on a horse, galloping off into the sunset. It’s exciting, drastically different from Swift’s version, and by far my favorite of Adams’s reimaginings.
“Clean” is the perfect album closer exactly because it invokes a downpour of rain—one of Swift’s favorite lyrical motifs—washing away every emotion on every song we just heard. Perhaps wisely, Adams keeps the original spirit of the song intact before circling back to the same sound he opened the album with: seagulls at the beach, signaling that our hour-long seaside fantasy is over.