Monday, November 23, 2015

Ryan Adams Deconstructs Taylor Swift

Until Adele stepped up to the plate this week to save the nation's record industry, it had been propped up for the past year - just beyond life support - by the near omnipresent Taylor Swift.  Her record "1989" sold more copies than any other in 2014, and was probably primed to do the same this year until Adele came storming back into our lives.  Sometimes it seemed like every A-list star in the rock and pop made an appearance with Taylor during her tour this year, up to and including Mick Jagger.  That may be a slight overstatement, but all I know for certain is that there was rarely a week when she didn't pop up in Rolling Stone's "Random Notes" section.  Without question, the most successful country crossover star of the decade, if not of all time.

But make no bones about it, "1989" was about as far from being a country album as one could possibly imagine.  It is a pop album plain and simple, not all that far away (save for a handful of questionable tunes) from being one of the pop masterpieces of our time.  And yes, while there is little  doubt some point in the past year that you found yourself growing sick to the stomach of "Bad Blood" (or the endless speculation about what meaningless celebrity interaction led to the song in the first place), but it was one of the most effective earworms of the year - once you heard it, it was going to be there all day long.

So enter Ryan Adams, who I've always had a bit of trouble categorizing.  His Wikipedia page offers little in the way of hints, but does call his former band "alternative country," which I suppose is close enough.  He's been releasing albums, both solo and with his various bands, since the turn of the century, but he's never quite hit the big time (when queried about their knowledge of his work, nearly all of my colleagues responding with some variation of "Bryan Adams?  The guy who sang "Summer of '69?"  Well no, and there's a great story about that, but we don't really have time...).  Almost perfectly fits the bill of what Christgau (who is not a big fan) might call "the semi-popular artist."

So what to make of Ryan Adams deciding to record "1989," song for song, but in...well, Ryan Adams style?   Well, if it weren't for the "Hamilton" soundtrack, I'd say that it's unquestionably the conceptual masterpiece of the year, not to mention something that I've never heard happening before.  Perhaps it has, but I've bought a LOT of records and CDs in my time, and I can't think of a similar instance.

So let's give Adams an A+ for the concept.  How is the execution?

Without question, it works.  And it's unquestionably fun to compare his and Taylor's approaches to the album's monster hits.  Adams turns "Blank Space" into a tender acoustic ballad, he turns "Style" (unfortunately, in my view) into what I'd call a grinding rocker, and "Shake It Off" is (natch) slowed down a bit.  It is on "Bad Blood" where he is most successful, with a version that for me rescues the song from the bombast of the original production and the crushing publicity that surrounded it.

"Bad Blood," Taylor Swift (featuring in this version, Kendrick Lamar)

"Bad Blood," Ryan Adams

It's really on the songs that on Taylor's album sounded like lesser lights where Adams shines the most - I'm thinking in particular of "I Wish You Would," "Wildest Dreams" and "I Know Places" in particular.  The urge to compare with those tunes is not quite so overwhelming, but at the same time they may provide a means by which to better appreciate the originals.

But to these ears, the album's definitive masterpieces are "Out of the Woods" and "All You Had to Do Was Stay."  On both, you can hear the Swift versions at the periphery, but at the same time the arrangements are all Adams.

"Out of the Woods"

Overall, the whole thing is a hoot.  I love the idea, and the execution is strong enough that I've got no problem at all giving it my thumbs up.

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