Sometime in August 2015, Ryan Adams let everybody in on a secret: he’d decided to cover Taylor Swift‘s 1989 in total. This was not the first album-length cover of Adams‘ career (he never released his version of the Strokes‘ Is This It), nor was this his first attempt at 1989. He initially attempted a stark, four-track rendition of the record — naturally dubbed his Nebraska — but he wound up settling on “in the style of ‘As played by the Smiths’,” which was an elegant way of saying Adams‘ 1989 could easily slide onto a PostModern MTV playlist from 1989-1990 and not ruffle many feathers. Such shimmering sadness is Adams‘ default mope mode, neatly showcased on Love Is Hell (co-produced by John Porter, who helmed the first Smiths records), and this is certainly a cousin. Sharp guy that he is, Adams realizes the bulk of the record can’t all be brokenhearted strums, so not all of 1989 glimmers in a flat black pool. “All You Had to Do Was Stay” surges to a Modern Rock pulse, but he cheekily inverts the exuberance of “Shake It Off,” strips the T’Pau and Chvrches out of “Out of the Woods,” and softens the steely “Blank Space,” thereby turning the first three singles into laments. Nevertheless, there’s no disguising how Ryan Adams flips Taylor Swift‘s 1989 upside-down, turning a moment of triumph into bedsit introspection, a concept that is undoubtedly theoretically interesting, but the record works because Adams doesn’t play this as a stunt. He’s as canny a producer as he is a conceptualist, coaxing forgotten college rock sounds out of his Pax-Am Studios and treating Swift‘s originals as text to be interpreted, a move that neither saves nor strengthens the originals but rather highlights the skill of Taylor the songwriter and Adams the musician.
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