Full disclosure: I was not enamored of Taylor Swift's "1989," which steamrolled her country leanings last year and made her the most influential pop star in the world. I did love some of its singles — who can resist "Blank Space"? — but the sleek, soulless production left me cold. Even by pop standards, the album felt contrived and anonymous.
Leave it to Ryan Adams, the unpredictable singer and songwriter, to prove the skeptics wrong. Not even two months after he announced the project via social media, he's come up with a song-for-song reimagining of the entire album. Except his "1989" softens the shiny contours of Swift's versions to reveal something quieter, more unsettling. He turns the songs into cosmic Americana with the sun-kissed glow of 1970s California rock.
Released on iTunes on Monday (with CD and vinyl editions expected later), Adams's "1989" prompts a reappraisal of the original album. If you didn't already, it even makes you appreciate Swift's stealth songwriting, particularly when scaled to its essence.
He was meticulous enough to present all 13 songs in the same order, all reworked in largely acoustic settings played by a band and drenched in reverb. He draws out the heartbreak and disenchantment lurking in Swift's lyrics, playing up a dusky melancholy that was nowhere to be heard in the originals.
It works so well because Adams interpolates his own meanings of the songs. "Bad Blood," that inescapable summer jam, is suddenly no longer just a kiss-off to a rival. Now it's a plaintive rumination on soured love, not so brassy but even more relatable.
He strips "Out of the Woods" of its rhythmic drive and lets it breathe as a hazy, spiritual cousin to the Replacements' "Here Comes a Regular." The opening electric pulse of "Welcome to New York" gets replaced by the warm sound of seagulls, while "Style" cracks wide open with a cocksure swagger; if I told you it was U2 covering the song in 1987, you'd believe me.
Swift, by the way, has been the album's biggest cheerleader, tweeting her support with a countdown to the release date and expressing her mutual admiration for Adams. "Ryan's music helped shape my songwriting. This is surreal and dreamlike," she posted last week.
In truth, there's no point in comparing Adams's versions to Swift's because they bear no resemblances, either in tone or instrumentation. Nor are these covers. They're interpretations that are specific to Adams's viewpoint and wholly new creations. Turns out I can no longer say I don't like Taylor Swift's "1989." Because I do.