One cold day in late 2006, Ryan Adams decided, for whatever reason, to release 11 albums at the same time.
Recorded under various pseudonyms like DJ Reggie, the Shit, and WereWolph and featuring novelty covers of songs like Creed’s “Higher”, the insomnia-indebted mini albums all streamed on Adams’s website at once, each one sloppily (and joyfully) crafted out of pre-loaded GarageBand samples, Adams own late-night howls, and a never-ending stream of makes-sense-only-to-him surrealistic jokes. One song was called “Pizza Police”. Another featured an original creation called Snapz the Clown (“Snapalicious!” Adams calls out at one point). In perhaps the biggest troll of his entire career, he also decided to do a heavy metal rendition of “You’re Still the One” by Shania Twain. After a distressingly short amount of time, the streams were removed, never again seeing the light of day, even if cheap MP3 bootlegs still circle the dark corners of the torrentverse.
When it comes to fully appreciating Ryan Adams’ decades of musical output, it’s important to understand that even when he verbally accosts his own fans and claims that he had to go into therapy because hecklers kept calling out for Bryan Adams hits during his shows, the former bad boy of alternative country has always had a humorous streak running through his work, dating all the way back to the comical studio banter intro to his 2000 classic Heartbreaker. Earlier this year, he finally covered “Summer of ’69”, seemingly on a whim. In 2013, he produced an eight-song hard-rock album with Fall Out Boy just because he could. Back in 2008, he claimed that he recorded a note-for-note recreation of the Strokes’ Is This It using only “mandolin, pump organ, and banjo.” Despite numerous claims that it does in fact exist, it still has yet to see the light of day.
All of this leads to what is perhaps the most striking aspect of Adams’ own track-by-track rendering of Taylor Swift’s planet-eating blockbuster 1989: the follow-through, both in purely practical terms (i.e. it actually got released) as well as in its unique aesthetic. Adams could have easily gone into full DJ Reggie mode and pushed this out quickly and cheaply, but instead he gave this careful consideration, telling the Wall Street Journal that “I could tell where she was at when she made it; I could feel that,” using this purported kinship as fuel for one hell of an idiosyncratic passion project, working the whole thing out in about 10 days with guitarist Tod Wisenbaker and new drummer Nate Lotz.
Right from the onset, with the sound of seagulls and building string sections, Adams’ tackles “Welcome to New York”, 1989‘s weakest track by a mile, as an open-air acoustic strummer that wouldn’t be too far removed from his 2002 odds-and-sods collection Demolition. It’s a vast improvement over the sparse keyboard sheen of the original, Adams’ additional piano plinks and slight melodic variations giving the tune a warmer, more humanistic treatment, all while thematically echoing back to his own mainstream breakthrough “New York, New York”. Mid-tempo is the name of the game here, but Adams, craftsman that he is, knows how to differentiate mood and texture so as not to lap himself stylistically. The ’80s wah-guitar sounds that helped anchor Swift’s original “Style” are swapped out for the pedal-effect electrics that Adams used to such great effect on his excellent 2014 self-titled set. The minor-key “I Know Places” is here reinvented with a sinewy bassline strut, “Blank Space” is treated as a wounded finger-picked ballad that recalls his infamous reinvention of “Wonderwall” off his 2003 Love is Hell EP, and tracks like “Wildest Dreams” and “Clean” are given the kind of sprawling full-band treatment that almost makes one miss his former backing band The Cardinals (almost).
While all of this makes for a glorious pop culture curiosity — one that has fans debating the most “improved” numbers (“Welcome to New York”, “Bad Blood”) along with the worst (“Shake It Off”, “Out of the Woods”), to say nothing of Father John Misty’s piss takes of the whole superstar love affair — one still can’t help but feel that once the excitement has settled, this whole project ended up as a missed opportunity. While Adams has gone to great lengths to reinvent each song to fit his own sonic aspirations, he does little to alter Swift’s lyrical template or even infuse it with his own worldview. Case in point: on “Shake It Off”, he removes the trailing repetition of words like “play” and “shake” from the chorus, but still talks about how he’s going to shake off the haters in this moody, sad bastard context, removing the celebratory and empowering elements from the original to instead give us little more than a dry read of the lyrics over cavernous e-bowed guitar tones.
His most drastic (and interesting) change comes during the chorus of “Style”, altering that “James Dean day-dream look in your eyes” line to the much more winking “Day-dream Na-tion look in your eyes”, as well as gender-flipping the entire half of the second chorus to the far more base “You’ve got that long brown hair thing that I like / You’ve got that good girl faith and ass so tight.” It is in this moment where Adams, whether it was born out of necessity to address Swift’s gendered pronouns or simply because he wanted to, truly makes the song his own, infusing it with both perspective and personality, and in doing so winds up leaving the listener wishing Adams bothered to make a few more bold choices over the course of the whole thing.
Even taking in recent pop music history, there is a great tradition of artists claiming other people’s songs for themselves, whether it be through the context of the performance/performer (see Johnny Cash’s take of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”, which proved so good that one Associated Press writer mistook it for a Cash original), rewriting songs from an alternate perspective (see Tori Amos’ ambitious 2001 set Strange Little Girls), or stripping them of their melody completely until they become monologue-driven horror movies (which Benicio del Toro did with his cover of “Shake Rattle & Roll” on the 21 Grams soundtrack for some reason). Save a few lyrical tweaks here and there, Adams’ 1989 never gets that bold, leaving the disc’s thesis statement to read as, “Hey, look at all the covers I did,” instead of, “Watch me make these songs my own.”
There is still a great amount of joy to be found in 1989 as a whole, as Adams, even without the guise of DJ Reggie or “Snapz the Clown”, knows full well that it’s impossible to think of someone doing a song-for-song reinterpretation one of the most popular albums of the new millennium without at least some of his tongue placed inside his cheek. It’s just a shame that as entertaining as such popular revisionism can be, his 1989 will be remembered more as a curiosity than it does a full-bore artistic statement, which might seem like high-minded expectations to attach to such winking curiosity, but as its best moments prove, that notion isn’t too far removed from our wildest dreams.