Last week I posted my long-overdue thoughts on Taylor Swift’s 1989 and promised to come back this week to talk about Ryan Adams’ cover of the album (minus bonus tracks, unfortunately). So that’s what I’m here to talk about, whether you like it or not. Sorry, typoattack, you’re not escaping Taylor Swift this week, either.
Quick note before I get on with it: it was recommended that I listen to “Ronan,” by Taylor Swift. I wasn’t familiar with the song and didn’t do any research before loading it on my iPod and setting off. Which was a bad idea, because I don’t know if any of you have ever tried to hold back (manly) tears while simultaneously driving a car down curvy suburban roads, but I can say with all sincerity that I do not recommend that you attempt it. Please, for your own safety, listen to this song, but do it at home or in some other safe place. I haven’t gotten the nerve up to listen to the live version yet… Here’s the story behind it.
Ok, now that that’s out of the way we can get to the actual reason for the post. I doubt it’s the first time it’s been done, but this is the first time I’ve been aware of an artist releasing a cover of an entire album, as opposed to just one song. Halestorm has put out two EPs of covers, but they’re from all different artists and albums. And of course, I’m not counting cover bands (do they even release albums?), because that’s the entire point there. Adams is an established artist in his own right and he covered an entire album. That’s what I mean when I say I’m not aware of anyone else doing it (please, though, if it’s been done, tell me, I’d love to see more of this kind of thing). Adams’ version of the album came out in 2015, almost a year after the original dropped.
I like to think of it as a sort of “What if…?” album. As in, “What if Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Roy Orbison got together and covered Taylor Swift’s 1989?” Because that was immediately the vibe I got. I’ll go into more detail on that in the breakdown:
- “Welcome to New York” — If you thought I was joking about the influences I can hear in the album, just listen to this (and also “Shake it Off,” but we’ll get to that soon enough). There’s so much Springsteen in this track it’s impossible to miss it. This version of the song could easily fit on an album like The River. I’m not sure that I can say definitively but I think the song benefits from the treatment Adams gives it. If this were the original, rather than Swift’s, I imagine New Yorkers would have been more ready to accept it.
- “Blank Space” — Somehow, he managed to take an upbeat pop song about the crazy harpy Swift is made out to be, and turn it into a sort of folksy track filled with longing. I have no idea how that works, but it does work. Even though the lyrics are the same and the tone of longing clearly doesn’t match the content. Look, I didn’t claim to be able to tell you how to make a good cover or change the tone effectively, all I know is that for whatever reason, this one works pretty well. The guitar part is beautiful, though I’m a sucker for picking, so judge that one yourself.
- “Style” — I’m going to address the apparently controversial lyric changes to this and other songs at the end of the post, so we’ll move away from that for the time being. There’s a bit of a jarring switch here, coming out of the slow “Blank Space” and into what feels almost like a punk rock cover of “Style.” That intro and guitar tone almost give me a blink-182 vibe. Musically I think I might like it better than Swift’s version, though I’m not really positive. It’s still not my favorite song, by any means.
- “Out of the Woods” — I think I can hear either a mandolin or twelve-string guitar in here; maybe an autoharp? I’m not sure, but something with a higher register than a regular guitar. It adds a very nice touch and some extra depth. Which is needed, I think, because otherwise the song is kind of bland. It’s the longest on the album at just over six minutes, and it feels even more repetitive than the original because of the way he drags out the chorus. There is a fair bit of emotion behind it, though, and musically there’s a very nice build up.
- “All You Had to Do Was Stay” — If I didn’t know the original song, I think I’d really like this version. As a stand-alone track, it’s pretty solid. But as a cover, it falls a bit flat for me; he changed the melody a bit to much for my taste. At times, it felt like he was trying to force lyrics into a melody they weren’t designed for. Which, I mean, I guess technically he was, so that’s not really an analogy so much as literally what’s going on here. But as I said, some of that impression might be because I already know the original song and have a preconceived notion of how it should sound and how the words originally fit the melody. So it might actually be fine, melodically, if I’d never heard Swift’s original. Food for thought.
- “Shake It Off” — There’s no way anyone will ever convince me that Adams wasn’t doing his best Springsteen impression here. If he didn’t walk into the studio and say “Hey, I’m doing this one like Springsteen,” I don’t want anyone to ever tell me, because that’s the only possible way this song could exist. I mean, it’s basically just Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire,” from Born in the U.S.A., slowed down and filled with Taylor Swift lyrics. It’s a very fun and confusing song. I am a bit disappointed that he left out the rap, however.
- “I Wish You Would” — Not really a whole lot to say here. This mostly feels like a stripped-down version of the original, in all honesty. I guess there’s not really a whole lot of room for change, though. It’s worth noting that Adams’ vocals here sound a bit like Bob Dylan, so there’s that at least.
- “Bad Blood” — What’s immediately striking about this one is just how clearly you can hear the original melody, even though it opens with an acoustic guitar. It’s actually pretty impressive. It’s also quite surprising how well the song translates from a hip-hop-esque pop track to a more folk-rock style song. I *might* actually prefer this to the original, to be honest, though I’m a bit biased since I’m not a particularly large fan of rap and hip-hop, generally.
- “Wildest Dreams” — Speaking of covers I like better than the originals… If you were here last week you’ll remember I was pretty hard on Swift’s version. If you weren’t here last week, suffice to say that I’m not a fan of the original. It just doesn’t do it for me, especially those damn breathy lyrics. As for Adams’ version, I actually didn’t even recognize it at the start. This is one of the tracks he gender swaps the lyrics on (again, more on that later), which I think worked out pretty well, actually. It allowed him to put more emotion into it, from his perspective. Hell, you could even look at it like an answer to Swift’s, as if he were the guy she were singing it to and he’s singing it right back. Honestly, I almost feel like this is the way the song was intended to be heard from the start. I mean, I know it wasn’t, but this works so much better. I get a bit of a Tom Petty vibe from this one, which isn’t a bad thing in the least.
- “How You Get the Girl” — This is another one I spent a bit of time on last week, though in this case because I really like the original. So that biases me a bit here; this one just doesn’t capture the magic the same way, at all. However, what hits me every time I hear this version is that Adams sounds like Roy Orbison. At least, to my ears, that was the first thing I heard. So it’s kind of cool in that regard; I just can’t get behind it fully because of my love for the original.
- “This Love” — Arguably of all the tracks on the album this one hews closest to the original. It’s a bit sparser, being primarily comprised of piano and vocals, but the original wasn’t exactly much more fully orchestrated, so there’s not a whole lot to work with. It does show off Adams’ range, though, more than I noticed on any other tracks, and it’s not unimpressive. I also think he manages to get a bit more emotion into it than Swift does.
- “I Know Places” — I kind of love what he did with this one. The original track is quite eerie and atmospheric, which isn’t a bad thing, but it can be slightly uncomfortable sometimes. I just don’t expect “eerie” and “pop music” to go together, I guess. Though Katy Perry arguably cornered the market there with “Dark Horse,” but that’s another story entirely. Anyway, Adams turns this song into a very cool sort of Latin/Jazz fusion. It’s very bass-driven and I get a similar vibe off of it, at times, as I do with Green Day’s “Espionage,” from one of the Austin Powers soundtracks (The Spy Who Shagged Me, maybe? I don’t know, and honestly don’t really care enough to look it up right now). Somehow I get a sort of ’60’s spy movie feeling from it. It’s definitely one of the strongest tracks on the album.
- “Clean” — I didn’t really get a whole lot of notes on this one; I just didn’t really have anything strike me that I wanted to say about it, honestly. It’s very different from the original, and I don’t think either one is necessarily better. They’re just different, and feel like they set out to accomplish different things in terms of tone and such. They both work in their own ways. I did note a subtle lyric change from “wine-stained dress” to “wine-stained shirt” that I thought was kind of neat.
So before I wrap up, I did say I’d address the lyric changes Adams made, in which he gender-swapped a lot of the songs so that he’s singing from a straight male’s point of view, rather than Swift’s straight female point of view. Apparently people took umbrage with this, even going so far as to accuse him of having “fragile masculinity” because he didn’t sing love songs about another man. The whole argument is ridiculous, in my opinion, given that his changes don’t change the meaning of the songs in any way; they just make the songs truer to his experience. He’s not the first artist to do it, and he won’t be the last. There was an argument made that some of his lyrical changes to “Style” “ruined the more innocent feel Swift lent to the song,” a notion which I find almost as ridiculous as the whole outcry against his changing the gender. Because let’s be real, there’s nothing innocent about the original song. There’s implication that both parties have been cheating on one another, for one; I always felt there were some sexual undertones; and let’s be real, the words “tight little skirt” don’t exactly drip innocence so much as sex appeal. Combining them with “good girl faith” somehow makes it feel even more sexual. Just because it’s a Taylor Swift song doesn’t mean it’s wholesome and innocent. Even the Beatles had their fair share of less-than-innocent songs — if you don’t think “Please Please Me” is about sex, you’re either not listening, or you’re very, very naïve. There’s no doubt in my mind that “Style” is a sexual song — at least, about as sexual as Swift gets. I don’t think Adams did it a disservice with his lyric changes, nor do I think he has anything to apologize for in making the songs his own. There’s no reason to expect him to sing them about men when he’s not gay. They’re reinterpreted covers, not note-for-note covers. There’s a difference. For those who are interested, here’s the article I stumbled upon that triggered this micro-rant.
Anyway. One thing I noticed throughout the whole album was that Adams’ voice lacks some of the depth of expression of other singers, especially Swift, and I think this sometimes hinders the tracks a bit. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s noticeable when you expected certain notes that just aren’t there. It occasionally gives an odd impression of his vocals being a little flat or off-key, which is a little jarring for someone who’s familiar with the original versions. If these were all his own original tracks, it would likely be a completely different experience, though, which is why I’m hesitant to say it detracts from the music. I think it doesn’t necessarily work for Swift’s songs, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a flaw for Adams. On another note, no pun intended, the seagull cries the open and close the album are a nice touch. I always love subtle bookends like that. I don’t really know why they’re there, but their presence does explain the album cover, at least.
Overall it’s quite good, and there’s some novelty in hearing Swift’s songs performed in ways reminiscent of artists like Dylan and Springsteen, who are pretty unlikely choices for people to cover her work. It certainly doesn’t come close, most of the time, to the original, but as a cover album it really is very good, and a lot of fun to listen to. In closing, I’d like to show you an image I stumbled upon that I really think should have been the actual album cover:
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