Do you trust Taylor Swift when she cites Ryan Adams as “one of the artists who shaped my songwriting”? Do you trust Adams when he tells you his impetus for embarking upon a song-by-song cover album of Swift’s 1989 was that he “just wanted to play,” and that he wasn’t sure—even after finishing the project—whether he’d release it to the public? (He since has, attracting an overwhelming amount of ears.)
I’m an unabashed fan of the wide-eyed pop-country fare Swift produced in her teens, and I’ll concede that even the most annoying songs off Red and 1989—the grating “Shake It Off’ chief among them—eventually become earworms. But I enjoy her music in spite of my distaste for her personality. She’s like a twentysomething female version of John Kerry or Mitt Romney, willing to say or sing anything to broaden her appeal, and her parading around with a posse of supermodels will do nothing to bolster the body images of the non-tens who worship her. She’s been hailed by many for making a gutsy choice by abandoning country altogether on her latest album, but really, Swift has been her own genre since she reeled in the tween masses in the early aughts, a one-woman Disney Channel without the Mouseketeer beanie. She could record an album in Swahili with only a kazoo as accompaniment at this point, and it would probably still top the Billboard charts.
As Grantland’s Steven Hyden (the sharpest music writer in America) deftly points out, Adams’ fan base didn’t respond so positively when he torched his cloak as alt-country’s future king to make Love Is Hell in 2003. But that album was no anomaly; he’s since proven himself to be quite the polymath. Now that listeners have finally embraced his dexterity, he’s rightfully revered.
“Taylor Swift fans are sometimes depicted in the press as a monolith mass of rabid hysterics, but they’ve actually embraced Swift’s stylistic shifts with uncommon open-mindedness,” writes Hyden. “Adams for a long time wasn’t afforded the same courtesy…After a long wilderness period in which Adams loomed precariously close to permanent burnout, he’s more assured in his craft than ever, and he finally has an audience that’s willing to follow him wherever his muse takes him. Adams and Swift are in similar grooves—Adams just took a longer, more difficult path to get there.”
Hyden feels Adams’ cover of 1989 is just as admirably risky as Swift’s original recording. I don’t share this opinion, because I don’t really trust either artist. Swift is Swift, and Adams petulantly refused to play Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69” in concert until very recently. My suspicion is their intersection is more calculated. By covering Swift, Adams exposes himself to a wider audience than he’s attracted in his entire career to date. And by having her album lovingly reinterpreted by someone with Adams’ artistic credibility, Swift allows some of that cool to rub off on herself.
So how does Adams’ 1989 sound? Jangly and acoustic, it’s far more unified than Swift’s cut, which is something of a sonic hodgepodge. On “Welcome to New York,” “Wildest Dreams” and “Clean” especially, Adams’ arrangements and vibrato are reminiscent of Springsteen, while “Blank Space” and “Out of the Woods”—the latter more akin to Swift’s nearly perfect ballad “Back to December” than the song itself— are stripped and slowed down, to gorgeous effect. Adams’ versions contain more depth and emotion than Swift’s; had she cut these songs in a more creatively disciplined manner, they’d have coalesced into a stronger album.