Eight years ago, the avant-garde group/collective the Dirty Projectors released Rise Above, an album that bandleader David Longstreth described as a track-by-track “reimagining” of Black Flag’s 1981 Henry Rollins-era opus, Damaged. In its performance of Rise Above, Dirty Projectors’ almost resembled Black Flag: “serious, somewhat inhuman stuff, which is possibly why the band never smiles onstage: Longstreth, wide-eyed and focused, hair like wild grass ….” wrote Pitchfork’s Mike Powell. However, to say that the two scarcely sounded similar would be a massive understatement. For Powell, Damaged functioned more as a musical “anchor” for Longstreth’s “polyrhythmic arrangements.” In the end, the source material enabled the Dirty Projectors to actually find a pattern of sorts, something their previous offerings sometimes lacked, even if it radically departed from the Black Flag original.
Undoubtedly daring, Rise Above remained an album made by a somewhat underground Brooklyn group covering a well known but cultish hardcore Southern California band of the 1980s—kind of like obscurity doubling down on minor fame. Ryan Adams’s remake of Taylor Swift’s 1989 represents something far different. Adams might be a cult figure in his own right, better known for banishing fans from his shows for demanding covers of Bryan Adams songs, but he probably has more fans than the Dirty Projectors certainly, and Black Flag perhaps. Moreover, Swift’s 2014 masterpiece could never be described as anything but a mainstream juggernaut that at once further demonstrated her breakthrough appeal and her truly prodigious writing chops. Whatever missteps she might have taken with neo-colonial videos like the one for “Wildest Dreams” have been obscured by the album’s embarrassing treasure of musical riches.
Granted, 1989 is not Adams’ first foray into a cover album. He famously recorded an unreleased blues based rendition of the Strokes This is It. Still, Swift’s work differs markedly from that of Julian Casablancas and his merry band of underachievers, though both the Strokes and Swift channel different strands of 1980s music.
To be fair, Swift’s 1989 had always been a bit ironic. The album reveled in a certain nostalgia that the singer herself could never have actually experienced. It harnessed a vision of New York City infused by 1980s sensibilities along with pop music aesthetics from the same era. NYC as a site of perennial reinvention for ambitious twentysomethings gave the album a certain entrée for us older folks. For younger Swiftians, it represented the immediacy and promises of one’s twenties with all its attendant ups and downs, crushes, loves and heartaches. For older folk, the album resonated for different reasons, reminding many of us of the same experiences but in a more backward-looking manner. In either case, 1989 delivered nostalgia and immediacy in equal amounts and like Barack Obama’s 2008 presidency enabled listeners to project their own emotions, travails, and dreams onto the music.
Enter Adams into the mix. Under Swift, 1989 had retained a strain of wistful sadness. Stories of struggling romance, amorous jealousy, and classic heartbreak ran headlong into well-manicured pop beats. Moreover, in Swift’s voice, the album might have been filled with the usual heartache, but the kind everyone experiences in their 20s—meaning the kind of loss that hurts, not because it crushes you but because it’s so new. Sure, older folks might take an ending romance with a grain of salt and less angst than Swift, but one could argue such responses are derived from the fact that people in their 30s and 40s know how to fall better. Your typical 25 year old falls much harder, but like babies their emotional bones are made of rubber.
Swift’s 1989 felt upbeat and empowering, though its lyrics touched on damaging breakups, irresistible bad decisions, and romantic regrets,” writes the Onion A.V. Club’s Annie Zaleski, “because she never gave up hope that things might work out in her favor.” A thirty-five year old cannot afford to land so hard, since as a famous Bruce Springsteen song once declared, “You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much . . . spend half your life just covering up.”
Okay, so the “Born in the USA” line seems a little over the top in this context, but it serves as the perfect bridge into why Ryan Adam’s 1989 proves so durable. Unsurprisingly, Adams channels more than a touch of Bruce, and not just anthemic Born in the USA or Thunder Road Bruce but also his brooding slow burn takes such “I’m on Fire,” as evidenced by the former Whiskeytown singer’s cover of “Shake It Off.” Adams’ occasional country inflection works well here also, especially considering Swift’s own background in the genre. “Bad Blood,” “I Wish You Would,” and “Wildest Dreams” feature more than a dash of country; “Wildest Dreams” arguably feels like it could be background music in a remake of Robert Altman’s Nashville. In other moments, such as on “All You Had To Do Was Stay,” a kind of shambling weary wide eyed yearning found on tracks like “In Reverse” or “Eyes to the Wind” from the most recent War on Drugs album, arrives front and center. One can even hear echoes of Jackson Browne floating in and out of several tunes on Adams’s 1989.
This brings us to a second point that the aforementioned Zaleski noted. She correctly attributes this to Adams’s tendency to view the glass as half empty, operating “under the assumption that things are irrevocably damaged…” Indeed, 1989 sounds vastly different when sung by a forty year old man, or woman, I would argue. Lyrics like “twenty stitches in a hospital room” sound much more as if they sprouted from the Antlers’ haunting 2009 release Hospice. Getting stitches due to recklessness in one’s youth seems almost a rite of passage; at middle age, it suggests something else all together.
“Are we out of the woods?” Swift/Adams ask. Not at all, and perhaps never will be with this partner or any other. As filtered through Adams, “Wildest Dreams” sounds like desperation; an adult escaping to Montana hoping to cling on to memory of a past love as sustenance for the hard winter of life. When Swift sings it, it remains tinged with sadness, but the kind that can be overcome with a new love. Likewise, when Adams croons “we never go out of style,” one doubts the statement’s accuracy. Middle-aged people know all about these falling outs, especially the cutting edge sort.
The production too steers away from over indulgence. The tunes are kept short and many them begin sparely stripped down to little more than a guitar and just above a whisper vocals. All of this is evidence of two things: Swift remains a fairly epic songwriter and Adams a snob-free, imaginative curator of music and creative force in his own right.
Of course, this could be a well just a well choreographed mutually beneficial gimmick. After all, Swift and Adams had been talking about this remake for months. For Swift, it not only burnishes her songwriting bonafides; it also offers further entree to Generation X music lovers and even, considering the noted Springsteen influence, some of the boomers accompanying their kids to her shows. For Adams, Swiftians are aging into high school and college, and while they’ll remain diehard Taylor fans, some might go foraging for other sounds. Adams’s melancholy has been known to win over more than few collegians and recent graduates. “And when we go crashing down, we come back every time/ Cause we never go out of style/We never go out of style”: from 21 to 45, with Adams’ interpretation, this might be more true of Swift’s creation than ever.