Was it a joke? A tribute? A masterpiece? The opinions on Ryan Adams’ new album, a song-for-song cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989, came fast and furious. With so many divided opinions on the record, the minds here at Bearded Gentlemen Music thought it seemed best to tackle the album as a roundtable discussion.
We brought in several B.G.M. writers to discuss the record: Kevin Krein (who also reviewed the LP for Anhedonic Headphones), M Milner (see their review at Extended Play), Melissa Vega, Aaron Cooper, and B.G.M. head honcho/editor in chief Jon Robertson. Full chat after the jump!
M. Milner: So let’s start the roundtable with the big questions. If you heard Taylor Swift’s 1989, what did you think of it. And if you’ve heard Ryan Adams’ 1989, what did you think of that? How do they compare?
Personally, I liked most of Swift’s 1989. It was a big swing in a pop direction, but one altogether unexpected. She’d taken steps in that direction before – I’m thinking of “19” in particular – and a record like that was probably bound to happen with her, eventually. The more I think about Swift’s record, the more I think about her ego though. Isn’t it a pretty bold statement to say the year you were born is so important you have to celebrate it with a record? Isn’t that about as bold as, say bringing out a cast member of Friends to sing a song from before half your audience was born?
I’m still working my way through Adams’ 1989, but I’m really struck by how straight he plays it. When he announced this, I thought he was joking or something. He actually did the thing, but what really stands out is how earnest the thing sounds. Like, I don’t really get the impression he’s having a laugh at the listener (or the music’s) expense. This isn’t like when a bunch of white frat bros does an acoustic version of “Today Was A Good Day” or whatever. (Also his version of “Style” is undoubtedly better than Swift’s)
Kevin Krein: Obviously, I love this album and it’s made me (at least temporarily) believe in music again.
Aaron Cooper: I listened to Swift’s record and even though I despise her, 1989 isn’t a BAD record, to me it’s just kind of generic. It’s not even her best album, let alone the pop album of the decade like some people are calling it. Adams pulls it off but I think that says more about him as a legitimate artist than it says about these particular songs.
Without Swift’s public image, these songs aren’t that remarkable. As an artist herself, her voice is small and pretty much isn’t very distinctive. So being that these songs were crafted around that, they only go so far. Adams on the other hand is not only more diverse in style but he is also a seasoned artist with 20 years under his belt. It’s like having Eddie Van Halen playing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on guitar, it has no choice but to be remarkable.
“Blank Space” sounds like Suicide (the band, not the act). If they would’ve covered this album, THAT would be killer!
Jon Robertson: Still listening through as well, but my initial reaction was that Ryan Adam’s is doing this as a way to get cheap publicity. He knows that by covering Swift’s album that is already huge that his version of 1989 is going to get attention regardless of whether or not it is any good. Also, wonder if he is in cahoots with Father John Misty by having him do a cover of a cover to hype this up even more.
However, Ryan Adams will always have a soft spot in my heart because of the “Night Sweats” sketch, which is comedic gold. Best Line 2:19 mark “Unfortunately its not as metal as I’d liked it be. It also talks about my feelings…” Ha!!
KK: I’m interested to hear why Aaron is still so hesitant to listen. Look, I get it, Taylor Swift is not that great, and her 1989 was pretty bad (in my opinion) but Ryan Adams slays, and dude has been on a perpetual winning streak since his return to music in 2011.
AC: I think being that this cover is not bad us a testament to Ryan Adams authenticity and convictions in his performance, than it does about the songs themselves. We all know Swift’s character is what sells her albums. Her albums may be catchy, but her success is based on her brand. Take away the “girl next door writes a diary of pop songs” angle and you are left with mediocre, under seasoned pop tunes that require no range or showmanship to perform.
Regardless of my opinions on Swift, pretty much anyone could perform 1989 so when an artist like Adams does it, it just clicks.
Is it good? Eh, not really. For the most part, these songs are so easily crafted; Adams comes off as phoning it in. Is it bad? Not exactly. The same thing that makes these songs generic are the same things that make them easy ingesting. Hearing someone like Adams play these songs actually makes Taylor Swift’s celebrity seem to make more sense. People enjoy simplicity. Even more so when it’s performed by a simple girl.
As much as it pains me to say, the whole idea of Adams covering this album smells like a cheap way to get publicity. Taylor Swifts earns artistic credibility when an artist with critical acclaim covers her, and Adam opens the door for Swifties to give him a listen.
What if this is his way of flirting with her? I mean he is a recent divorcee. What if these two hooked up, then broke up? Could you imagine the break-up albums they’d both release! I guess if that would be the case, both fans if Adams AND Swift would win!
KK: Bruh bruh, I have to disagree with you that he’s phoning it in. With the amount of emotion poured into “This Love” there is no way dude is half assing anything on this album.
I’ll admit the decision to rearrange, record, and release a Taylor swift covers album is weird. But Ryan Adams is a weird dude. It’s his earnestness that sells this, and makes it as good as it is. He keeps it one hundred.
AC: I don’t think he is phoning it in, these songs are just so mediocre, that anyone performing them that’s not Taylor Swift, automatically sounds like they are by default.
1989 is a weak album from Swift. It’s heavy on style (no pun intended) but low on emotion. It’s a vessel for Swift’s brand. Ryan brings his weird, sulkiness to the table and for the most part it works but other times it’s just…well, …weird!
KK: I agree that t-sway’s 1989 is mediocre. It’s so built up around a pop sound that the lyrics are somewhat secondary, and I think it’s impressive that Adams was unable to unlock any emotion out of them at all. Some of them, even if they aren’t that profound, become profound when placed in a different context.
I also commend Adams for going back and forth between his own influences on this, and not making it all ‘alt country’ versions or garage rock, or smith-esq brit pop. The fact that it’s just a little bit of everything makes it well rounded. It’s not a perfect album (the last two songs fall flat for me) but even the weaker moments in the first half work well because of that shift in style. It never goes out of style, you see.
MM: I guess maybe that leaves me as the only person who liked 1989, although I haven’t really listened to it lately (I still like “Shake It Off,” for what it’s worth). I think the interesting difference is Swift generally seems like she’s enjoying herself and Adams, well, I don’t know. Maybe this is his brand?
I’m glad Kevin mentioned Adam’s earnestness on this. When he announced this, I thought he was taking the piss, but it’s a pretty straight-faced record. Like, I never got the vibe that he was joking around in the studio. Although I do think he ran out of steam as he did this thing – there are definitely moments where I think he’s running through the motions – but there are moments of inspiration, particularly on “Bad Blood,” where he took one of the weaker songs and pulled out of the year’s best covers. I think on it’s own, divorced from Swift’s record, it has moments is just kind of average; I’d probably give it a 3/5. But as a counter to her record, well I don’t know, I’d have to think about it some more.
Here’s an interesting idea I had this morning: Swift started as a country performer; is Adams’ 1989 similar to what we’d have gotten if Swift went in the same direction as Kacey Musgraves? Sorry if I just got all Klosterman on ya’ll there.
Also, Aaron, I didn’t get a Suicide vibe from “Blank Space” at all!
Melissa Vega: As a person whose enjoyment of Ryan Adams is so casual some might find it offensive, his version of 1989 was not easy to get through. Now with Taylor, I bit the bullet and purchased her album earlier this year. I was a fan of all three singles and couldn’t shake my curiosity for what the rest of the record was like. Overall, it was worth it, and exactly what I expected. It’s poppy, catchy, and the lyrics are so straightforward I could sing along to each track after just a few listens. The lyrics are so pedestrian in fact, that when the hyper-production is taken out of the equation, all that is left are these teenage girl’s diary lyrics which are almost tortuous to listen to in serious way. It’s as if Adams got a hold of his little sister’s journal and is trying desperately to breath life, experience and pain into her ramblings.
There are a few exceptions, one being Swift’s obvious HAIM-inspired track, “I Wish You Would.” Listening to the original track will always prompt me to switch to Days Are Gone after it’s over, because why would I want to listen a song that is like HAIM, when I can just listen to HAIM? Adams’ treatment doesn’t elicit that feeling; in fact, it makes me want to fondle the repeat button instead. It’s almost too much to handle, Adams doing Swift doing the HAIM sisters, but it works. Unfortunately, the Lana Del Rey track “Wildest Dreams” doesn’t hold the same magic.
The moment on the album when Adams does successfully transform Swift’s music into something deeper is on the final track “Clean.” He turns the song (originally about getting over an ex-lover) into one about sobering up and getting off meth/heroin/your drug of choice.
I will say I think Adams’ efforts were earnest. He obviously has a huge soft spot for sweet, girly, ultra-fem women. I’m sure we all remember Mandy Moore’s tooth-achy, sugary-sweet “Candy” track from the early 2000’s. Swift has definitely become his new muse and hey, maybe he’ll get a date out of this.
KK: man I don’t get all the hate for “Wildest Dreams.” I don’t really even fuck with lasagna del ray, and Melissa, you are the second person I know who has mentioned her name with that song. The t-sway version was the only one I actually liked off of her 1989.
I like Adams’ but I think his post-love is hell jangle/twang works more effectively on “All You Had to Do Was Stay,” which has the real desperation and sadness of a legit Ryan Adams song, not just a cover.
MV: Yeah, “All You Had to Do Was Stay” is one of the better tracks on the Adams version.
I haven’t loved Lana since her first album, but the influence is definitely there.
KK: for all its flaws, and I mean there are a bunch, this is still probably my favorite record of 2015. Nothing that has come out in the 9 months so far this year has gotten me this excited about music where I stayed up with my iTunes account open, manically refreshing it until I could download it. But I also ride or die pretty hard for Ryan Adams. So I guess something like this is preaching to the choir, not trying desperately to convert, like it is with some of y’all.
AC: I’m pretty hardcore for Adams myself, but I didn’t get too excited because of my hatred for Swift (if it weren’t for this roundtable discussion, I probably wouldn’t have even listened!) But it was better than I thought overall. Ryan’s authenticity showcases just how weak the songs are and just how much Swift’s image is to her musical output. This reminds me of the time when Adams covered Oasis’s “Wonderwall”, people were flipping out on how great it was but to me, even with all his emotion, it reminded me how lame that tune really is.
It’s a cool concept to hear someone cover an entire album (extremely popular one at that) is pretty remarkable! I’d much rather have Adams cover something more ambitious though like make that St.Vincent record last year, or the new Tame Impala.
I kind of hope this trend catches on!
AC: Come to think of it, maybe I’m just not a fan of Ryan Adams doing covers?
AC: Adams covering Kanye now THAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN!
MV: Speaking of great covers, Toro y Moi sang Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Multilove at his show in Portland Saturday. It was amazing. I wish Chaz would do an entire UMO album.
JR: I feel like if Ryan Adams had released these songs without any context or reference to a Taylor Swift. So if this were an original collection (even if he had outside writers or whatever) of songs not covers then I feel like the press would be calling his version of 1989 album of the year and I wonder how the public would react to it. I feel like everyone would eat it up and be like “he’s an Americana / folk / rock / pop revolutionary genius”. I also feel like he put a ton of effort into crafting the compositions for the most part. Neither album is really my cup of tea although Taytay’s version of “Shake It Off” is crazy catchy. Its like pop music crack and Ryan Adams version sounds like The Boss, crazy how he turned this song into such a downer, but a well constructed downer. I guess he kind of turned all the songs into downers now that I am thinking about it.
MM: It’s funny you mention The Boss. I’ve seen more than a few people say his “Shake It Off” is basically an homage to “I’m On Fire,” which I can totally see although I probably wouldn’t have made that connection myself (I don’t really like Springsteen all that much; the only record of his I own is The River).
KK: It took reading it online to think that his version of “Shake it Off” sounds like “I’m on Fire.” I think “Welcome to New York,” if anything, gives off that true Boss vibe of a straight up banger/anthem/fist pumper.
MM: In my defence, I’ve never owned/listened to a copy of Born in the USA, I only sort of know the tune from the radio
KK: Born in The USA is Springsteen’s most commercial/accessible.
MV: Never been a Springsteen fan either, but I agree “Welcome to New York” sounds more bossy.
AC: “Blank Space” is kinda one note throughout vocally, so when Adams does it, his gruff voice kinda comes of Springsteen ish, giving it that Suicide vibe to me. Actually if some one would cover it within a Suicide vibe, it would work really well.
JR: The Boss is kind of bogus.
KK: Controversial hot take if i have ever heard one.
KK: M.,, I have not played it on the stereo yet, only my headphones, so I am not sure what Annabel thinks. Once I do, I will let you know.
KK: Hey so uh, Milner: Annabel seems to neither terribly like nor dislike 1989. She is currently munching, and we are on “Wildest Dreams” and she hasn’t brought up Lana Del Rey once.
MV: Annabell’s sultry Jessica-Rabbitesque alter-ego Annabell Rey told me she totally hears the influence.
KK: Oh no!
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.