Ryan Adams ‘1989’ – Review

11 Oct

In late 2014, Ryan Adams headed to New York to record a double album about his separation from wife Mandy Moore. In a recent Zane Low interview, Adams described the still unreleased album as the most devastating and powerful piece of music he’s yet recorded. If correct, IF, that’s quite an achievement considering this guy has brought us some of the most beautifully sad records of all time. But according to Adams, even that didn’t scratch the itch. He still felt gnawing emotions that he had to capture and release, yet he’d used up all of his own song ideas and inspiration. So he turned to Taylor Swift.

It was an inspired decision, and for fans of both artists a dream come true. The King of heartbreak covering the Queen of heartbreak’s most successful album. Conceived as a a cover in the style of Bruce Springstein’s bare-bones ‘Nebraska’ before transforming in to Swift in the style of The Smiths, Adams eventually settled on a sound and style somewhere between the two – via his own landmark ‘Love Is Hell.’ Here acoustic guitars melt into a blanket of romantic strings and a swell of jingle-jangle guitars. It’s an undeniably pretty, low-key sound that like all Ryan Adams productions places complete emphasis on the songwriting.

In that department ‘1989’ was Swift’s weakest effort to date; an album less concerned with songs and more concerned with hooks and choruses – which is not a criticism as it worked well for her, but I was interested to see how the songs would stand up when stripped of the production candy that made ‘1989’ such a treat. The answer is surprising. Some of the original album’s weakest songs actually fare better in this simplified context. ‘Welcome to New York’, everyone’s least favourite Taylor Swift song, becomes a more impassioned indie-rocker that sounds at once more knowing and moving. Every fan is aware of Adam’s love affair with the city and his passionate treatment of the song lends a real sincerity to the simple lyrics.

Likewise, the somewhat drab album closer ‘Clean’ is made over to sound like a Sundays song, and the addiction metaphors that sounded strained and unconvincing originally seem somehow more meaningful coming out of the mouth of a recovering heroin addict. Adams also transforms the dull ‘I Know Places’ in to something far more interesting and lively, whilst his punk rock version of ‘Style’ is positively inspired. Adams is never patronising, ironic or glib in his cover versions. If people suspected this was a big joke then that’s proved to be very much incorrect. ‘1989’ works because Adams brings unbridled passion and enthusiasm for this music. The connection he feels to Swift’s songwriting is obvious in every note and his admiration for her craft is clear in how seriously he has taken on this task.

As I’ve discussed, Adams undertook this project as a kind of catharsis, as an opportunity to put to bed his lingering sadness about the dissolution of his marriage. In the album’s saddest moments, Adams undoes 1989’s underlying optimism and replaces it with a hard won sadness that is typical of his best work. The once upbeat Disney pop of ‘How You Get the Girl’ becomes a slow-burning ballad about unbearable loss where his voice quivers and breaks. ‘I Wish You Would’ becomes an equally heartbreaking eulogy for lost love where lines like ‘I wish that you knew that, I miss you too much to be mad anymore’ – could have just as easily been lifted from Adams own ‘Gold’. Adams might have been influenced by Swift but, ironically, these songs reveal his own influence on her songwriting.

For the many successes of the album, there are some songs that for whatever reason don’t work out so well. ‘Shake It Off’, originally more of a theme tune or mission statement, is reduced to a torch burner and stripped of its hooks and snappy production becomes a complete drag. ‘Out of the Woods’ is another song that sounds lacking when stripped of its production flourishes. The repetitive chorus sounds almost comical In this context and it doesn’t help that Adams stretches the song out for six and a half minutes. The likes of ‘Stay’, ‘Blank Space’ and ‘Wildest Dreams’ are all enjoyable and interestingly done but can’t compete with the vibrant originals.

There has been a very mixed response to Adams take on ‘1989’ with some critics cynically focusing on the musical conservatism and rockist connotations of a privileged male validating a young female’s work. Other’s see it as a redundant indulgence on Adams part. To me though what is clear is that the album serves a functional purpose; the recording served as a full stop to a period of time for Adams and afforded him the chance to study one of the best songwriters of recent times. For the listener it allows them to enjoy one of the best pop albums of recent years in an entirely fresh context.

The result is an album that sounds more inspired and impassioned than anything Adams has released recently. It seems to have had a real rejuvenating effect on him. It works because he connected with the material, that much is obvious, and he brings out drama and heartbreak from these lyrics in a way that only he is capable of. Now what do we have to do to hear Taylor covering ‘Heartbreaker’?

8/10

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