PAX AM, 2015
by: Scott Lowder
Upon reading the title of Matt Meade’s review of Ryan Adams’ 1989, I threw up in my mouth a little. The nerve of a man to compare one of my favorite songwriters to Aaron Lewis of Staind! In most cases, I let things posted on the internet slide (see every Pitchfork review of Ryan Adams, ever), but in this case, I just couldn’t. I took to Facebook to post my displeasure to Matt, and was surprised to get a direct message from him asking that I write a counterpoint article for Old School Record Review. So, here goes nothing!
Adams’ songwriting has always been very intriguing to me. He seamlessly weaves melodies into memorable full band performances, yet he can still strip the songs back to just his vocal and acoustic guitar and make you feel them even more. I’ve always said that a great song can stand alone without all the bells and whistles of over-production in a studio. I believe Ryan has always excelled at that. He can take songs like “Gimme Something Good” and make the listener feel as if it was meant to be an intimate track all along.
I love when artists play cover songs. Being a musician myself for the past 15 years, I’ve found that it’s a great way to change your mindset for songwriting. Re-imagining a piece of music is a release for artists because there is less to wrestle over. The structure, lyrics, and chord progressions already exist, so the hard part is already done! Adams has already taken well known songs by other bands like Alice In Chains’ “Down In A Hole” or Oasis’ “Wonderwall” and brought a new meaning to them with his unique perspective and passionate vocals. So naturally I was excited when he announced that he was covering Taylor Swift’s 1989 in full.
Now, let me be clear, I’ve never been a big Taylor Swift fan. I’m only vaguely aware of her music because my kids love listening to it in the car. I respect her songwriting prowess, and was intrigued that Adams felt so strongly about the songs that he had to cover ALL of them. I know that when an artist does that, the songs have really spoken to them on a different level.
Matt Meade mentioned in his review that “(Adams) is giving these songs a coat of the Staind treatment.” Meade describes this as where an artist with a tough guy exterior plays a pop hit in a tender acoustic way to reveal his soft center. Adams has never acted as a tough guy, and will be the first to tell you that most of his songs verge on the sad side of life. Also, not to mention the albums of original material he has released that are primarily acoustic (see Ashes and Fire, or live albums like Live at Carnegie Hall). This isn’t a shtick. This is Ryan Adams being Ryan Adams and he really doesn’t give a shit what you think. He’s spent a good portion of the past year battling a divorce to his wife of six years, and has latched onto an album that has helped him cope with it. I’ve done that many times, as I’m sure you the reader, and Mr. Meade have as well. I believe Adams’ reinterpretation of 1989 was nothing short of a beautiful tribute to masterful songwriting. His now infamous approach to recording live on vintage analog tape machines gives a real and vulnerable feeling to 1989 that couldn’t be heard or felt under the barrage of 808 beats that engulf Swift’s version.
Ryan and his new ‘1989’ band, dive right in with “Welcome to New York,” and bring life to what was a ho hum track on the original. It’s followed by a stripped down version of “Blank Space” which doesn’t quite do it for me. It seems to lose some of its luster and doesn’t connect lyrically to the acoustic arrangement. This might be the only track on the album that doesn’t stand up to the original.
My favorite track on the album, “Style,” comes in like a rocket, with the reverberated guitars weaving in an out of each other for each verse, and coming together to create huge anthemic choruses. If you’re only gonna listen to one track on the album to decide if you like it, let this be it.
“Out of the Woods,” “I Wish You Would,” “How You Get the Girl,” and “This Love” really tug at the listener’s heartstrings and let Adams’ vocals shine. He makes you feel every word, as if he wrote them himself. It seems like he comes for a real deep place when he delivers each word.
“Bad Blood” gives a good taste of vintage Adams and could easily be at home on his Gold album from 2001 alongside “New York, New York.” “All You Had to Do Was Stay,” “Wildest Dreams,” and “I Know Places” really achieve what Adams set out to do with this album, which was to create a mashup of The Smiths and Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album. The bass lines on these tracks could easily be mistaken for something from a Cure song.
This leads me to “Clean,” the final track on the album. Upon first listen, this track blew me away. It really brings the album together as a whole piece of work and helped me to understand what Adams was trying to do with this album. As the words ‘Gone was any trace of you…” at the last chorus pour out of him, I realized it was not a marketing ploy, nor an attempt at raising his stock as an artist. It was his therapy.
This album bridges the gap between multiple genres, and brings a new audience to both sides of the fence.
Back in 2007, singer/songwriter Ben Lee covered an album called ‘New Wave’ by the band Against Me! Lee, not really knowing much about the band, downloaded the album because a friend had sung on it. He couldn’t stop listening to it and said it was “…unmistakably a pop masterpiece.” The original album is really a beautiful piece of work, yet because of the heavy guitars and screamy vocals, most people wouldn’t even give it a chance. Lee took the album and dug to the heart of each song. It reached a different audience that may have never given Against Me! a chance. Lee definitely changed my perspective with his reinterpretation of the album. So much so, that I really enjoyed the original as well. You can still download this album for free at this link: https://benlee.bandcamp.com/album/ben-lee-sings-against-me-new-wave
Whether you’re a Taylor Swift fan or a Ryan Adams fan, or neither, I highly recommend you give Ryan Adams 1989 a good listen and your full attention. You’ll be glad you did.
Scott plays in the band Scott Lowder and the Vapers, described as a mix of Counting Crows, Ryan Adams, Elton John, and ’90s rock. You can check them out on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scottlowder, Twitter at www.twitter.com/vapersband, or download a free song at www.scottlowderandthevapers.com.