Despite only being announced six weeks ago, Ryan Adams’s 1989–a track-by-track cover of last year’s Taylor Swift album of the same name–quickly shot up to the top of the “most anticipated albums, Fall 2015 edition” list. Taking the poppy, dancy, electronic-influenced chart-topper from Swift and having alt-country balladeer Adams reinterpret it seems like a weird move, until you remember two things.
First, Swift herself got her start writing offbeat country songs, even if she’s a million miles away from that now. And secondly, Adams is a big-time musical weirdo whose singer-songwriter material is balanced out with , a punk rock album released under the band name “The Finger,” and a full, track-by-track cover of The Strokes’ debut album Is This It that was never released.
Swift herself was elated by the announcement–she swore that she’d celebrate the day she learned of it as a holiday for years to come, and tweeted a countdown late last week until the release, declaring the notion of hearing it “surreal and dreamlike.” But the question remained, how seriously would Adams take the project? More to the point, how much connection would a 40-year-old Americana artist feel to a 25-year-old’s synth-heavy record that shattered sales records at a time when nobody buys music anymore? We listened to every song on Adams’s 1989 to compare it to the original, and ranked each one on the Swift-o-Meter in order to determine how much it kept, how much it deviated, and whether we believed that Adams was taking this seriously.
“Welcome To New York”
What Adams Does: The first sounds you hear on Adams’s 1989 aren’t guitars or synths–they’re seagulls, because Ryan Adams probably listened to this album a lot on his way to the beach. The hook here is still huge, but there are no synth lines or dance beats.
Swift-o-Meter: 50%. You would probably believe that he’s covering Taylor Swift if we told you, but you could probably be convinced when he sings lines like “Everybody here was someone else before,” that it was a song on one of those old Springsteen albums that the Boss kept tucked in his back jeans pocket for a 10 years before releasing it.
What Adams Does: A sweet, acoustic, minor-key ballad. He dumps a lot of Swift’s song–there are no spoken lines like “I can make the bad guys good for a weekend,” at the end of each verse, skips the bridge entirely, and changes “we’re young and reckless” to “we’re goddamn reckless,” which is a little risque for Tay-Tay.
Swift-o-Meter: 40%. It’s not a pop song anymore, but “Blank Space” is so familiar that even though it sounds like it could have come off of Demolition, it still feels like Taylor Swift.
What Adams Does: “Style” sounds like the sort of thing Ryan Adams would have written, except he hasn’t had a hook as good as the one here since Gold. Adams plays the verses as blues jam, but keeps the heavy bass line that Swift uses to good effect.
Swift-o-Meter: 50%. It’s still a Taylor Swift song, but it’s one that your Keith Richards-loving dad can get behind now.
“Out Of The Woods”
What Adams Does: The first song on Adams’s 1989 that really transcends the original, this is another simple, pretty, acoustic song–but he’s extremely patient with it, stretching Swift’s four minutes of pop into six-plus minutes of music that builds into something increasingly lovely. There are harmonies and a hook that keeps growing, but staying bright.
Swift-o-Meter: 20%. The idea of dropping a cover like “Out Of The Woods” is basically why a project like this is appealing in the first place.
“All You Had To Do Was Stay”
What Adams Does: This one is pretty true to the original–Adams plays it on rock instruments, but otherwise it’s really very straight. “All You Had To Do Was Stay” is basically the most forgettable on 1989 no matter if it’s being recorded by Taylor Swift or Ryan Adams, so it’s hard to tell for sure.
Swift-o-Meter: 80%. A forgettable song by Taylor Swift is a forgettable song by Ryan Adams.
“Shake It Off”
What Adams Does: Ryan Adams promised that his version of “Shake It Off” would be something that you could hear on the intro credits for the next season of True Detective (if there is a next season of True Detective). That’s pretty fair–he does a pretty good job of burying one of 1989’s more undeniable hooks here, instead really committing to the idea of “Shake It Off” as a dirge that could precede any number of depraved acts by detectives on HBO.
Swift-o-Meter: 10%. Even if you’d never heard Swift’s album, you could believe that most songs on Adams’s 1989 were pop songs written for tweens once, but not “Shake It Off.”
“I Wish You Would”
What Adams Does: It starts off like a jangly guitar song, and Adams plays it like that for a minute, but when the chorus comes back around, it goes big in ways that are totally different from how it sounds on Taylor Swift’s recording. Adams’s version focuses mostly on being a really pretty, melancholy ballad, where Swift’s is such a dance jam that it kind of buries the sadness that Adams is so interested in.
Swift-o-Meter: 40%. He doesn’t really change the way the song sounds, he just plays it more intuitively so that the saddest song on 1989 is a sad song.
What Adams Does: Adams’s “Bad Blood” is basically the same as Swift’s. He doesn’t open the song with the chorus the way that she does, and he dumps the stomping, stuttering drums. But he sings the song the same way that she does, for the most part.
Swift-o-Meter: 90%. Maybe Adams released “Bad Blood” as the first single just so people who already like the song would hear something pleasantly familiar?
What Adams Does: Both Swift and Adams do the same basic thing with “Wildest Dreams.” He just plays his with a rock band. This sounds mostly like a version of the song specifically intended for people who like Taylor Swift’s songs, but don’t like her recordings. Basically the only difference is that Adams lets his band jam a bit for the last minute or so of the outro.
Swift-o-Meter: 80%. Listen to the two back to back and there’s almost no difference. (Here’s a fun-fact instead: In 1997, Adams’s first band, Whiskeytown, released an EP called In Your Wildest Dreams, just like the song!)
“That’s How You Get The Girl”
What Adams Does: Another one that gets the stripped-down, pretty treatment. The difference between this and the other songs Adams does that for is that the original “That’s How You Get The Girl” is already built around an acoustic guitar. As a grown-ass man, Adams has some gravity to his voice when he sings advice to young dudes on how to get the girl, though.
Swift-o-Meter: 50%. Swift uses acoustic guitars on “That’s How You Get The Girl” for one of the only times on 1989, but Adams clearly hears this song as something very different from her version.
What Adams Does: “This Love” is the first ballad on Swift’s 1989, and to capture the fact that “This Love” is meant to sound different from the songs surrounding it, Adams makes it the first song built around a piano instead of a guitar. He does this song in his falsetto, rather than in the vocal-fry range of his voice, and leaves the drums that Swift brings into the chorus off.
Swift-o-Meter: 60%. He turns a ballad into a ballad, so it’s pretty straight. Lyrics like “This love is good, this love is bad” and “this love is glowing in the dark,” are pretty dumb no matter who sings them, but they sound especially silly when Ryan Adams croons them with way too much reverb on his voice.
“I Know Places”
What Adams Does: He plays “I Know Places” like it’s a latter-day Dylan song–not exactly a blues number, but with driving drums and a dark bass line that kind of recalls the blues. It plays well with Swift’s lyrics about running from hunters, although the song brightens up a lot when Adams gets to Swift’s sunny chorus.
Swift-o-Meter: 30%. Swift’s “I Know Places” is the darkest song on her 1989, but Adams’s version does dark in pretty different ways.
What Adams Does: Adams treats “Clean” like a sad beach song–it’s still a mournful song about heartbreak, but with jangling guitars and a steady rhythm that keep it from feeling too self-indulgent. If he had an English accent, you could convince yourself that it was a mid-’90s Cure song, maybe. Except for the seagulls at the end, of course.
Swift-o-Meter: 40%. Swift’s “Clean” is sadder than Adams’, which is the only time that’s true on the two records. He doesn’t mix it up too much, but he seems to deliberately tone down one of the more emotional songs from 1989.