PAX AM, 2015
By Matt Meade
On September 21, 2015, Ryan Adams released a track-by-track cover of Taylor Swift’s 2014 release 1989. After much pre-release hype it turns out that, more than anything else, it reveals something about who Ryan Adams really is.
Sure he has a bit of swagger and he knows how to write a song that can get under your skin but it turns out that Adams is for the alt-country /Americana movement what Lenny Kravitz was for the neo-psychadelic / hard rock radio format in the 1990s. That is to say they are talented musicians playing dress up with the ideas and tropes of their respective genre clouds successfully enough to get people to pay attention. If you squint while you listen to Adams’ music it’s hard to tell him from Rhett Miller or The Kings of Leon. If you hear his music coming from the adjacent apartment you might guess that your neighbors are listening to anyone from Norah Jones to James Taylor. I have been worried that I would one day come to this realization for the entirety of Adams’ career.
After the excitement over the lauded but, let’s face it, overrated Heartbreaker died down, 2001’s Gold sated us all. Though the smooth and radio-ready Gold (or as I like to call it: The John Mayer Record) suffered from some obvious failings, like being bloated and uneven, hinting at certain predilections that would grow to become career long habits, we were all just ecstatic that it was listenable and that it wasn’t an example of the sophomore slump. I never liked “New York, New York” because I could never see past the nation collectively misinterpreting the song as being about post 9/11 healing, which is bad for a number of reasons I don’t want to get into right now, and I also could not stand “La Cienega Just Smiled” because of that did-he-really-just-play-that “reference” to Oasis in the pre-chorus, but “The Rescue Blues,” is a real sturdy tune and there is a damn song about Sylvia Plath on it. Overall I thought it was a good-enough record. I especially liked that he was holding a gun in the liner notes. That always seemed like kind of a ballsy, rock and roll move. It turns out however, that might have been the best thing about the record.
Rock N Roll was a pretty big turning point for Adams’ career with pretty much everyone agreeing he wasn’t delivering on his earlier promise. I thought it was pretty decent, contrary to popular opinion, and made a habit of defending it even though it was uneven and included the song “This is It.” The song “Rock N Roll” was a real killer, after all, but I was worried things were falling apart. I was beginning to be able to predict what his records would sound like. He was becoming comfortable and that, as we all know, is the opposite of Rock N Roll.
Over the next decade we were distracted by Adams’ every-once-in-while ability to craft a great song like “Blue Sky Blues,” or to come up with a decent conceit like the one that framed the record 29. We liked the fact that he married Ashley Simpson or whomever, and the fact that he did things like call up Jim DeRogatis and say all the things to that blowhard critic that we have always wanted to say.
In short, he acted like a fucking rock star (not a musician, mind you. A rock star). He showed up, did his job and we paid him what we pay guys like that (which means giving of our attention, maybe seeing a show, and perhaps even buying whatever stupid fucking Motorolla product he was selling since people don’t pay for music anymore).
After his first few records we thought we might have had another Waylon Jennings, or maybe even another Bruce Springsteen on our hands. Over the ensuing decade though, we began to suspect that we were dealing with just another Gordon Lightfoot.
We collectively bristled as the quality tailed off, but anyone who can write a classic throwback to the cowboy songs of yore like “Bartering Lines,” or a song as ragged and bloody as “Note to Self: Don’t Die” deserves a little latitude in his mid-career efforts. As his catalog expanded, we politely called him “prolific.” What we meant was “he releases a lot of garbage.” But he seemed to be doing whatever he wanted and we turned a blind eye for a while.
But last year we got his self-titled record. It told us a lot. It told us that he wasn’t just pandering, he wasn’t just having fun. It told us that he really meant what he was peddling. That after decades of playing music, he thought that he had finally got it right and that he was ready to put his name right on it. It was maybe when we were all finally able to collectively admit to ourselves that maybe he wasn’t that good to begin with. That maybe he wasn’t even that handsome.
Listening to the Tom Petty rip off “Gimme Something Good,” and the silly “Am I Safe,” it became apparent that his lyrics were often perfunctory, typically entreating someone to “stay with him,” or complaining that someone “broke my soul.” There is a lot of rain and a lot of broken windows in his songs. The way he says it is a part of the problem too, of course. His voice is fine, but is almost completely lacking in character. Worst of all Ryan Adams the record sees Ryan Adams the artist committing the cardinal sin of pop music. He isn’t doing anything new.
Sure he’s got great taste in music. You could put together a pretty sweet playlist of all his overt references, but even that can’t save a record with song titles like, “Shadows” and “Feels Like Fire.” The record finally began to reveal him for the Garth Brooks by way of Billy Joe Armstrong poseur that he has been the whole time.
Which brings me to Adams’ 2015 re-interpretation of Taylor Swift’s 2014 smash success 1989. The project begs a series of non-rhetorical questions:
“What is this strange need to re-purpose this pop superstar’s songs?” “Is he trying to one up her?” “Does he want to show us what a serious artist he is compared to her?” “Did Adams just happen to notice that both he and Swift like putting numbers in the title of their songs and records?”
And if you have not heard these songs, which I am assuming you have, but if you haven’t, they sound exactly like you think they do. Exactly.
He says they are supposed to sound like The Smiths, but they don’t. He’s just giving these songs a coat of the Staind treatment. That’s where an artist with an (allegedly) hardscarbbled exterior plays a pop hit with a tender and worn acoustic earnestness as a way to reveal his (always his) soft center. When guys do this they always act like they are joking, but then they say they are serious, but then pretend they are joking again, like they are testing the waters with a girlfriend about her interest level in having a threesome.
I’m not saying this never works, of course. The history of pop music is filled with great covers from The Band’s cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Baby Don’t You Do It,” to Cake’s sardonic “I Will Survive,” to Eef Barzelay’s interesting project where he has fans request songs that he cover and which sees him covering everyone from Demi Lovato to Leonard Cohen, doing so with wit, vigor, and a sense of fascination.
So, on some level it makes sense that Adams would end up doing something like this. After all, this is the guy who loves to drop little quotes and references to other songs into his own songs. “Anybody Wanna Take Me Home,” sounds a lot like “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” the song “29” is a sort of homage to The Dead’s “Truckin’,” and the list goes on. This is also the guy who insists on naming his songs after other songs, (“Wish You Were Here,” “This is It,” “Amy,” and “Hotel Chelsea Nights”). This tendency has always seemed somewhat odd. He must know that these songs are not as good as their namesakes and inspirations and that they are destined to become mere curiosities. He must know that much of what he is doing is disposable. Is Adams’ 1989 supposed to be a mere curiosity?
Maybe not. Maybe, as he insists, he is really charmed and inspired by Swift’s songs. There is some overlap in the Venn diagram of these artist’s careers, personal lives, and musical stylings, after all. Both have been accused of being country artists; both have had public courtships and breakups with famous musicians and celebrities; both have a strained relationship with music industry and music journalists. Maybe Adams genuinely admires Swift and he wants to celebrate her talent by recording cover versions of each of the songs off of her previous year’s release.
The track by track cover record is an interesting idea and may soon become ubiquitous. The Flaming Lips scooped Adams by about a year on this however, with their Beatles freak-out With a Little Help From My Fwends, and Danger Mouse illicitly did a sort of inverse version of this with The Grey Album, but to record every song of another artist’s record within a year of its release? I don’t know of any examples of this in recent memory. It’s a curious phenomenon, though one that I’m a little surprised pop history hasn’t seen before.
Whether or not this is a novel idea however, this seems like some sort of reach for relevancy. It’s gimmicky and is designed to get everyone from Entertainment Weekly to Pitchfork talking about it; designed to get people from the pop, indie and country worlds interested; and even to get tech stories written about it (the webbie award for best marketing goes to Shazaam for how they offered “Blank Space” a day early if you used their app to listen to “Bad Blood”). It is the strangest kind of appropriation. I have to wonder if Adams wants people for the foreseeable future to have to distinguish between the records.
He almost pulls it off too. He is such a craftsman that arranging and recording these simple songs comes naturally for him. He has been such a pro for so long that he can yawn out three moody rock songs before breakfast. The problem is that it is all dour, and somber Aaron Lewis cover versions of Swift’s bubbly pop tunes. The lyrics seem all the more juvenile coming from the mouth of a 40 something. On “I wish you would” his vocals are affected, “Style” sounds like it wants to break free and become a jittery pop hit, but instead fizzles out. Despite a legitimately gorgeous lead guitar part, Adams’ take on “Clean,” not unlike the rest of these songs, is largely forgettable. Adams almost manages to do justice to “Blank Space” which he Bon Ivers with gentle-as-a-kiss finger picks and little heartbeat thumps on his acoustic, but even Adams can’t save the JC Penny jingle of a melody that is the chorus. The best thing that I can say about Adams’ version of “Wildest Dreams” is that, unlike Swift’s, it no longer sounds like Savage Garden’s “Cherry Cola,” opting instead to bop along like a real radio-ready MOR tune. It is wrung of the fresh, bright, wine-drunk mania of Swift’s version. This whole record is pretty dark and musty, actually. It’s like it was recorded in someone’s dad’s scotch-soaked study. It is all furrowed brows and carefully-posed loneliness.
“Shake it off” is the one I was most interested to hear. Swift’s version is a skittering, horn-spiked, neo-funk dance number with a catchy chorus and a marching band bass drum, so I was curious what Adams would do with it. He decided to go so far in the opposite direction that it sounds like he is covering another song. It sounds so much like “I’m on Fire,” that I expect Springsteen to start whooping in the background. I don’t know why I find that surprising.
It’s not that he doesn’t sound enthused, (though on “Out of the Woods” he sounds legit bored) but it is hard to not read the record as a little smug. It is hard to avoid seeing Adams as the big man on campus putting little sis Swift into a noogie and introducing her to his cool friends. This whole effort seems like he thinks Swift needs to learn a little something from big bro. The exchange they had on twitter certainly seems to suggest this. It’s the smug and knowing, “ya did allright, kid” tone that makes me crinkle my nose. He seems almost surprised that the songs are “holding steady.”
If there is a single song that is worthy of being listened to it is “Bad Blood.” It doesn’t really distinguish itself from Swift’s version, but it is just different enough to be a valid cover song. I do like that with Adams’ inflection he turns “we used to have mad love” from the kind of faux street-beef phrasing white girls use when they go to war on twitter, to a man talking about the amour fou he had experienced with a woman. So, even though the lyric “Bandaids don’t fix bullet holes” sounds even sillier on Ryan Adams than it does on Taylor Swift, it’s a pretty ok song and probably the best one on the record. It’s a testament to Swift’s songwriting that “Bad Blood” is decent no matter who sings it.
While we area talking about Swift’s songwriting, can I ask why are we so pleased with Taylor Swift for writing coherent pop songs?
It is like clapping for a toddler because they managed to pick the green crayon to color the grass in their coloring book. Sure I know a lot of pop music is artifice, but that doesn’t make actually writing your own music a special event. Good, era-defining musicians are supposed to write good songs. Taylor Swift is a rich and famous rock star, but that doesn’t give her license to be a total fabrication. I get that it happens all the time, but that doesn’t earn actual musicians who make actual music, even if it mimics those phonies, any extra credit for being authentic. It is supposed to be a demerit on Brittney Spears that she can’t write. You are not supposed to get a gold star for writing your own songs.
That is what rich and famous musicians are supposed to do. Ask Kurt Cobain. Ask The National. Ask Kanye West.
No one makes a big deal when a poor kid who grew up in public housing manages to string together couplets more clever than poet laureates, or release a masterpiece like Illmatic and Supreme Clientelle. No one was slapping known heroine addict Lou Reed on the back for not using a ghost writer on “Stephanie Says.” Why are we so impressed that a rich white girl who went to great schools her whole life rhymed “blood,” “love” and “done?”
End of tangent.
It is apt that Adams’ take on 1989 sounds like one of the countless imitators who released records after Heartbreaker got everyone’s attention back in 2000. Ben Lee’s Awake is the New Sleep and Pete Yorn’s musicforthemorningafter come to mind. The subservient drum track and the slightly desperate, (but not really that desperate cuz I’m rich and haven’t been actually desperate for attention and affection for a long time), chorus of “All You Had to Do Was Stay” sounds exactly what a late career grasp at relevancy would sound like. I am sure Adams could have come up with a song like this without poaching it from Swift.
By the time you get to the end of the record you start to realize just how self-serving this whole project is. It feels like once someone pointed out to Adams (who I would bet my Godzilla T-shirt is a vinyl guy) that “Wonderwall” is his most listened to song on Spotify that he said, “An Oasis song? Ugg. I’d rather it be Taylor Swift… That gives me a great idea. Get out the vintage mics, acoustic guitars and distressed denim… ”
This is to say that it is all very disappointing.
Ultimately Adams’ career seems to be little more than a triumph of marketing. He has the same ability to affirm that Mumford and Sons do. Because that is what this is supposed to do. It is supposed to affirm that the type of music that you listen to is the “right” kind of music to listen to. This is a record for people who say things like “If Taylor Swift could just play the guitar like Harry Nilsson and sing like Harry Chapin, then I could listen to her.” If you like Ryan Adams’ 1989 better than Taylor Swift’s it’s because you are afraid to get old, afraid to find out what comes next. Afraid that you will be replaced by the next generation.
Here’s the good news: You will die and be replaced by the next generation no matter what you do, so you can stop worrying about it.
The worst part is Adams is telling us things he thinks we haven’t noticed about the record. He is pointing out that Swift is writing sturdy and interesting songs. What he fails to understand however, is that they are more interesting when she does them.
At least Swift can play with things like saying “hella,” and “mad love” instead of Adams’ effort to obscure them. They don’t belong on his dusty, somber versions. But hiding that stuff is to his detriment. He is so busy making these songs sound like every other song that he doesn’t have the time or inclination to be whimsical or experimental.
There is something lush about Swift’s arrangements. There is a piquant of breezy class. The songs are modern and aware of radio-pop conventions, but they are a fresh take, at least. She is developing a signature. The heartbeat from “Wildest Dreams” or the mechanical ticking clocks of “Clean,” are helping to define this era for current and future listeners and musicians. Twenty Five years from now this is the sound that will be parodied, maybe lovingly or maybe dismissively, when this era is discussed. If we are lucky Taylor Swift will re-record Adams’ 2014 record so it will finally be listenable.
So, don’t let Adams talk you into or out of liking Swift. Make your own decision about whether or not you like her. Don’t succumb to Adams’ jocky peer pressure, no matter how mischievously charming his smile.
*Correction: This article was altered to correct the spelling of Marvin Gaye’s name, which was brought to our attention by a careful reader. Matt Meade made the error because he doesn’t know anything about music.