It always seemed to be slightly dodgy territory when men start covering pop songs in that earnestly sincere way that lads with guitars tend to have. It seemed to all start with Travis, who many years ago performed a deathly slow acoustic version of Britney Spears‘ Baby One More Time on Mark Radcliffe’s radio show, and then everyone was at it. Arctic Monkeys tried to improve on Girls Aloud‘s Love Machine, which as everyone knows is an absolutely impossible task, and the Godfather of Folk Music himself, Richard Thompson, sang Oops I Did It Again live to much condescending laughter from the audience.
It was clear what the message was: “Look boys, it’s ok. You can still like this silly pop music. Just put guitars on it, and stop thinking about all this daft girly feelings stuff. We’re a great bunch of lads who play proper music, we’re making this sound palatable now. Swoon upon our genius.” Or: “Hahaha let’s cover these stupid pop songs in an ironic way, showing them up for the manufactured fluff that they truly are.” Blame Radio 1’s Live Lounge if you must, or just the sheer, craft beer drinking, ludicrously bushy beard growing, modern-day ache for every single possible thing to be “authentic” and “real”.
So, it’s impossible not to approach Ryan Adams‘ track-by-track “cover album” of Taylor Swift‘s modern-day pop classic 1989 with some trepidation. Indeed, it’s a record that’s already fiercely divided fans of Ms Swift (with one Taylor disciple leaving a review on the iTunes store which simply reads: “Awful. I can’t wait to see this ‘singer’ flop”). Yet, for all its flaws, this doesn’t appear to be ironically poking fun at its source material, nor is it a patronising ‘reinterpretation’.
Adams and Swift’s friendship goes back years (he wrote some unreleased songs with her during the sessions for Red) and she seems to love the finished result, taking time out from her mammoth world tour and befriending every single female celebrity in the world apart from Katy Perry to tweet out praise for the album and beseech her fans to buy it. Of course, a cynic would suggest that’s because she’s in line for a massive royalty cheque if it does well, but Taylor Swift hardly needs any more money, does she?
So, what does Adams’ version of 1989 actually sound like? Well, it sounds very much like a Ryan Adams album, funnily enough – one of his good ones, thankfully. There are hints of the desolate sound of Heartbreaker in his cover of Blank Space, while there are plenty of nods to ’80s-era Bruce Springsteen which was written all over last year’s self-titled album. The Adams-ised version of This Love could almost be an outtake from Love Is Hell, so sparse and minimal is the arrangement. So, first of all, unlike the original, this isn’t an album you can dance to.
It does, however, demonstrate how strong these songs are. While there’s the odd misfire – Shake It Off turns into a pretty disastrous mid-life crisis dirge with all of the original’s sense of fun stripped out of it, with not even a mention of “this sick beat” – much of it sheds new light on Swift’s songs. Blank Space in particular turns much darker, with the line of “got a long list of ex-lovers, they’ll tell you I’m insane” given new meaning in the light of Adams’ much documented troubles with toxic relationships, drink and drugs. Style, meanwhile, sounds just as good as a snarling, menacing punky jam as it does a sleek pop masterpiece.
There are moments that grate though, not least Adams’ decisions to change the pronouns in most of the songs. So, instead of meeting a would-be lover with a “James Dean daydream look in your eyes”, Adams meets a girl with “that Daydream Nation look in your eyes” which, apart from serving as a shout-out to Sonic Youth and ensuring that we know he’s definitely not gay, really doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. However, the fact that all these songs were recorded during Adams’ break-up with his wife does give them an added urgency and poignancy – there’s a yearning desperation imbued into All You Had To Do Was Stay and I Wish You Would that’s up there with his best material.
Sometimes though, it’s true to say that there’s the air of an earnest be-hatted busker permeating the album. The intriguing weirdness of Swift’s Out Of The Woods is replaced by coffee-shop troubadour meanderings on Adams’ version (and, at over six minutes long, it rather outstays its welcome) and Wildest Dreams, unfortunately, recalls Rock N Roll, that widely, if somewhat unfairly, derided album that seems to be the nadir of his career. And the less said about the sub-Smiths jangle of I Know Places, the better.
So it isn’t better than Swift’s album, as that would be a pretty hard album to improve on. What Adams has done though is to look at it through another prism, and created a pure break-up album. Where the original was filled with anthems that were shot through with a defiant optimism, these are lovelorn ballads sung with a broken heart and looked at through the bottom of a glass. It’s ultimately a tribute to Swift’s songwriting skills that two such seemingly dramatically opposing styles can be reconciled so well.