1989 (Ryan Adams)

ryan-adams-1989The fact that Ryan Adams did a track-for-track cover of Taylor Swift’s monster success “1989” confirms at least three things.

One, every once in a while, the planets align and the musical muse of the universe chooses to smile on all of us, and we should be immensely grateful for that.

Second, Taylor Swift is one amazing songwriter. Even if you’re not a fan of her most recent incarnation (which you better get used to, by the way, because it’s not going anywhere) – straight-up, unabashed pop – you simply cannot deny the fact that this gal knows how to craft a song. Hook-filled melodies that won’t let you go, song constructs that make every bit of sense and lyrics that dig deep and paint master self-portraits in the perfect economy of words. It’s no wonder Apple stumbled over themselves to appease her. She has that power and for all the right reasons.

The fact that one of the other seminal songwriters of our time chose to cover her entire album is as ringing an endorsement of Taylor Swift’s songwriting prowess as anything. Ryan Adams writes songs like the rest of us breathe air into our lungs: effortlessly and consistently. Who else kicks out an average of one studio album a year (for a while there, two or three) of consistently solid stuff? The story goes that Adams found himself at home last Christmas after months on tour with nothing to do. So why not cover “1989”?  Initially, he never planned to share it with the world, recording a few tracks on a vintage 4-track cassette recorder (somewhere, my early 90s musical self is smiling).  But when the new year came and strong session players were added to the mix, he realized something – he connected with these songs. Not just musically, but deeper. Because they are, as has been previously noted, super songs.

Which leads us to the third thing: Ryan Adams is the consummate musician.  “Let’s record ‘1989’ like it was Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska,’ ” is how he described the album’s genesis in a recent interview with Rolling Stone.  Who thinks stuff like that up?  Better yet, who actually tries it?  Better yet, who actually succeeds at it?

Make no mistake, this is not a simple cover album.  This is not Ryan Adams playing Taylor Swift songs.  This is Ryan Adams taking Taylor Swift songs and owning into them fully.  He does a marvelous job of maintaining the integrity of each tune (so as not to be accused of “rewriting” them), while decidedly giving them his own flavor.  “Shake It Off” goes from being therapy via dance to self-assurance via chilling out.  “Style” is transformed from funky beat to all-out rock anthem.  “All You Had To Do Was Stay” goes from joyful pop to a U2-esque synth number.

It’s quite a ride listening to each track paired with its companion – as I did the day it came out, driving home from Montreat, thanks to a hastily-created playlist.  To be honest, I wouldn’t recommend experiencing the album that way.  It basically just shows you what you already know: Adams makes the songs all his own. Which, for the record, totally works.

You have the distinct feeling that you’re listening to a bona-fide Ryan Adams album – because that’s exactly what it is.  “Bad Blood” works best as an acoustic-based incarnation that’ll have you humming along with Adams’ effortless vocal.  “Out Of The Woods” offers up the most dramatic departure from the original, even marking a notable shift from common time to the sway-friendly 6/8.  Only one song, “How You Get The Girl,” feels like a miss.  Like Adams didn’t know quite what to do with it.  Even then, though, the strings that come roaring in around the 2:30 mark are gorgeous.  As a floundering songwriter I’ll gladly take a Ryan Adams “miss” any day.

Lyrics are tweaked, but ever so-slightly and only when necessary.  Adams deftly maneuvers the pronoun challenge presented when a guy sings songs written by a gal about guys (although I will admit that “he’s handsome” becoming “she’s handsome” on “Wildest Dreams” feels a little forced).  And while I don’t recall Ms. Swift dropping the ol’ “GD” in “Blank Space,” this is Ryan Adams’ world we’re living in at the moment.  Just roll with it.

Because Adams brings his own unique style to each song, and because he made the wise decision to maintain the track order, there’s a slight disjoint in the album’s flow from a musical perspective.  It’d be interesting to experience a version of Adams’ incarnation where the tunes are sequenced based on their relation to each other.  Still, I respect the decision to let the message of the songs guide the way, which Swift had already done.

Word is that Adams and Swift are friends and that he shared this project with her first before releasing it to the masses (in fact, her encouragement was apparently a big reason he finally did).  I think that’s cool on a number of levels.  Taylor Swift is a fabulous songwriter.  Ryan Adams, also a stellar writer, had both the musicality and (get ready for it) humility to acknowledge this and do something wonderful with it.  The end result is that we have two incredible albums of the same songs that are uniquely different.

Which takes me back to my first point: The musical muse has smiled on us. Enjoy it, my friends. It doesn’t happen often.

Steve LindsleyWhen STEVE LINDSLEY is not being a pastor, or sermonizing, or songwriting/giggling, or keynoting/leading music for various retreats and conferences, or teaching Old and New Testament at his local community college, or blogging, or running and swimming and practicing yoga, or playing pick-up basketball with his two sons and letting them win, or watching music competition reality TV shows with his love wife, it probably means he’s sleeping. Follow him on Twitter at @slindsley. Visit his blog.