“1989” (2014) was perhaps Taylor Swift’s biggest step away from her country singer-songwriter roots and toward the world of pop. She collaborated with high-profile pop producers like Max Martin and Shellback to create hits including the chart-topping “Shake it Off” and “Blank Space” and showed that album sales are not necessarily a thing of the past. “1989” sold almost 1.3 million copies during the first week of its release, breaking Swift’s own personal sales record. Unafraid to take on music industry giants, Swift also challenged the policies of streaming services Spotify and Apple Music — and ultimately removed her music from the Spotify catalog. With “1989,” Swift definitively proved the power of her immense cultural cache.
All of the above makes singer-songwriter Ryan Adams’ release of his own “1989” on Sept. 21 all the more interesting. Adams has been releasing solo material since leaving alternative country band Whiskeytown in 2000. In fact, “1989” is the singer’s 15th studio album — though it’s his first to be comprised solely of covers. Adams includes every song from the original Swift production but completely reimagines them as anything from folk-rock to light metal. His renditions are truly unique — so much so that listeners may have a hard time matching Adams versions with the originals.
For the most part, though, the covers sound like a crossover between Swift’s work and Neil Young’s musical style circa “Freedom” (1989), whose year of release is coincidentally the same as Swift’s album title. The similarities to Young lie in the reverb applied to Adams’ voice and the interplay of acoustic guitar with highlighting notes from its electric counterpart. Plus, Young owned the classic-rock-mixed-with-folk-rock style — the kind that gets heads bobbing but not banging. In fact, if one were to dial up the acoustic aspects of Adams’ “1989” just a little bit, his renditions would fit in perfectly around a campfire with their mellowed-out sound.
The album opens to the sound of seagulls on “Welcome to New York,” immediately putting listeners on notice that this is not just a simple cover but rather a total revision of the source material. The ocean sounds seem to set the stage for mellow music to follow, but the seagulls are soon joined by fervent strings that descend a minor scale, lending the sequence an almost cinematic quality. Suddenly, the strings are gone, replaced by an upbeat acoustic guitar punctuated by cheerful piano. The greatest indication of Adams’ classic rock ambitions is the simplistic instrumentation of the verse — a bass line and some drums behind his vocals.
By no means are these covers simplistic, however.
“Blank Space” showcases guitar playing almost on par with some of the coffeehouse folk greats like Richard Shindell and Shawn Mullins. Adams takes Swift’s stylized, edgy track and smooths it out, softening it and singing her belted lyrics almost in a whisper. This version may actually be more listenable than its original, especially for those who do not want to get caught up in Swift’s emotional charge.
“Style,” however, is where Adams really breaks out of the mold. This song has a red-light-district feel to it with its driving, incessant guitar riff and Adams’ reverberating half-yelled vocals. Though “Style” moves into a more hectic and aggressive music style, the rest of Adams’ “1989″ is far more relaxed, fitting comfortably into the folk rock and classic rock genres.
A highlight on this cover album is “Wildest Dreams.” Already a cult favorite off of Swift’s “1989,” here it takes on a whole other life. The recording sounds like it was taken at a live stadium concert, and the soundscape is textbook classic rock. Adams’ version is equally deserving of cult fandom, managing to maintain the original’s ethereal qualities through totally different musical devices.
This version of “1989” should be taken as an example of how covers should be done: leave some of the original to draw people in, but change enough to make listeners crave the new version. With “1989,” Adams has put together an outstanding collection of covers — covers that embody what covers should strive to be.