It’s tempting to dismiss Ryan Adams’ reworking of Taylor Swift’s 1989 as nothing more than a cheap trick, a symptom of an over-saturated media culture rapidly consuming itself. And while there may be an element of truth to such cynicism—as highlighted by the online coverage of Father John Misty’s snarky “reinterpretation of the classic Ryan Adams album 1989,” which he posted to SoundCloud immediately after the album was released—Adams’ reading of the album deserves to be listened to on its own terms.
Today, ironic covers of pop songs are ubiquitous across the Internet. Spend more than ten minutes on YouTube, and you’re bound to come across a video of Gwar covering Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son” or Jimmy Fallon (as Neil Young) performing the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song. Adams’s 1989, however, is something entirely different: a sincere reimagining of Swift’s original material. Adams described the concept behind the project to Zane Lowe, on Beat’s 1 radio, as a kind of bizzaro take on the original album’s 80’s-pop theme—Adams and his band, the weird kids hanging out at the mall arcade to Swift’s Molly Ringwald. Instead of Madonna or Cyndi Lauper, he mines the classic alt-rock of the era for inspiration. The jangly, reverb-drenched guitars on “Welcome to New York” and “Bad Blood” invoke the ringing arpeggios of R.E.M. and The Smiths. “Style” channels the unhinged swagger of The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg, and the plaintive americana of “How You Get the Girl” would sound at home on Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.
Beyond the “cover album in the style of…” nature of the record, what makes it more than just a collection of moody covers is Adams’ ability to tease out the tension in Swift’s songwriting. The longing nostalgia of “Out of the Woods” is fully realized in his treatment, and it would not be surprising if it becomes a staple of his live sets. The coy seduction of “Blank Space” is turned around to become a delicate reflection on the emptiness of fleeting romances, and by the end of “Shake It Off,” the refrain, “Baby I’m just gonna shake” renders the feel-good hit far more unsettling than anyone else could have imagined it.
While 1989 will be singled out primarily for its novelty, it reveals that as songwriters, Adams and Swift don’t exist as far apart as they may seem. If you strip away any great pop song, after all, there’s nearly always a simple folk tune hiding just underneath. Adams’ melodrama may prove too much for some, but there’s no arguing that it stands as its own work. For all its post-modern meta-ness, 1989 remains a Ryan Adams album through and through, which may the highest compliment you can pay it.