I wasn’t even sure I was going to review 1989. Having originally written my copy in the style of Paul Morley channeling Lester Bangs, I was on the verge of hitting the big red Publish button when Father John Misty appeared in a vision before me doing Jemaine Clement doing David Bowie from the 70s doing Jareth the goblin king telling me to wait a minute mister posting man.
So if any of what I’ve written sounds a little confused, well that’s because I am. Before even starting I tied myself in knots wondering how best to approach this review: do I treat it as interpretations of songs, not all of which I already know? Do I familiarise myself with Taylor Swift’s originals and play a game of comparisons? Do I take it very seriously, or as a jolly jape or playful homage?
I don’t want to get bogged down in the minutiae of what’s different, what’s new, what’s unchanged, what’s better, what’s worse, what’s richer, what’s poorer. Happily, this means I largely get to dodge the mansplaining minefield that some critics have haplessly happened into, scoring points for Adams on account of his fragile alt-americana man status (good), over Swift’s position as pop icon (bad, ldo).
Of course, it’s almost impossible to imagine 1989 as a set of pristine Ryan Adams concoctions; it’s hard not to be familiar at least in passing with one or more songs from 1989. But that’s ok: Unlike some people I am pretty pop-friendly; unlike some people I don’t have an innate dislike of Taylor Swift; unlike some people I don’t hate that Adams has chosen to undertake this project.
Even more specifically, I don’t hate Shake It Off. I’ve heard it, but not so much that I want to unhear it. (I just don’t seem to live in a world where I’m forced, against my will, to listen to other people’s music choices 24/7). I keep a fuzzy version of the song somewhere in the south-by-southwest parlor-by-living-room of my mental palace, and I can just about remember how to get there from my Eames chair in the library, from where I’m savouring Adams’ stripped back version.
It’s tempting to mention Wonderwall at this point, but although the end result of Adams’ interpretation of both tracks is lower-key, the Oasis track was not, let’s face it, a stomper. Aside from the intimate vibe, the best substitution was perhaps Liam’s more in-yer-face vocals (albeit vulnerable than his usual) with something less certain of itself. Here, a single block keeps the beat while Ryan cracks his voice, cranking up the intensity through the bars but never blowing up, or even really threatening to. It’s not better or an improvement, it doesn’t add authenticity to plastic pop, it’s just different. And at this point I neither know nor care how seriously I’m expected to take it.
Speaking of Wonderwall, here’s Bad Blood.
It’s interesting how Adams can make a cover of Bad Blood start off sounding like a song by someone else that he’s already covered. I’ll skip some of the logic, but what this essentially means is that Ryan Adams can take pretty much anything and create from it the sound of, well, the sound of Ryan Adams covering a thing. You see, what’s great about his version of Bad Blood is that it’s the kind of Ryan Adams track that you might find on any of his albums (apart from the ones where he does the heavy rock thing), particularly the ones that lead make reviewers use the phrase return to form. So that’s all good then. Except the flip-side is that he’s in danger of squeezing all these disparate sources into this universal cover-o-matic machine, and often the results are less varied than their source. As shaky as my knowledge of the original 1989 is, I have a feeling the sheen is less homogenous than Adams sometimes makes it seem.
Another effect of this big squeeze is a compression of sounds: Style, for example, wants to rock you, but while it sounds meaty enough, there’s a suspicion that some of it might be mechanically reclaimed.
Better is Adam’s take on All You Had To Do Was Stay, which is rendered as 80s soft-rock, somewhere between a John Hughes brat pack soundtrack and a Tango In The Night demo tape.
Wildest Dreams gets similar treatment, only minus the big chorus, making it passable, missable, sounding somewhere just shy of finished. I Know Places, on the other hand, is intriguing and wonderful. Initially shimmering surf-rock chords, it’s got a chorus you could sing all day. Thematically and sonically it’s not a million miles from Keane’s Somewhere Only We Know. (Seriously, work with me here…).
Out of the Woods provides the album’s other outstanding moment of Adamsing. It’s lengthy (but not quite Strawberry Wine lengthy), strummy (fairly Strawberry Wine strummy) and intimate and personal. It’s sweet and enchanting and almost justifies the whole project on its own.
The problem with 1989, perhaps, is that it seems like a perfect idea at first, but that doesn’t sustain for a whole album. Cherry-picking a selection of tracks wouldn’t have made the same cultural statement, whatever it may be, but it might have resulted in a stronger, more cohesive work. Maybe 1989 is just top-heavy with thumping hits, and meanders to its close, and that’s why so many of its better moments come early on. Or maybe listening in reverse track order could make you fall in love with the second half before ennui sets in. Either way it’s worth taking a moment to consider that one measure of any set of songs is their malleability: if you strip away the layers do they still work? Can you dress them differently and have them work in new ways? That so many of these songs can bear that effort and hold up should perhaps be enough to convince: whatever your views on the production or personality of the original, there are tunes a-plenty there, even if the style is not to your taste.
What Adams has created with 1989 is an album of two halves: one doesn’t linger in the memory especially well, not even fuzzily; the other is pure gold dust. In other words, 1989 is ultimately just another Ryan Adams album.