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Critics' Choice

By Bud Scoppa

Ryan Adams’ recasting of Taylor Swift’s 1989, melancholy in tone, classic rock in style, has clearly touched a nerve in the American collective consciousness. The PAXAM/Blue Note album, which debuted at #6 on the HITS Album Sales Chart, has yet to leave the iTunes Top 10 more than a week after its release, pumped up by fans of both artists, while the initial critical response has been thoughtful, if decidedly mixed. 

The critics who have weighed in agree on one point: With this unconventional undertaking—a beloved cult artist digging into the songs of a female pop superstar 15 years his junior and finding substance there as well as high-end melodies and hooks—Adams has ushered in a resonant pop-cultural moment.

New York Times critic Jon Caramanica, a hip-hop and country specialist who’s no fan of Adams’ music, is suspicious of the artist’s motives and dismissive of the album’s character. “Mostly, this release makes 1989 sound like a Ryan Adams album, which is remarkable only if you believe that Swift’s source material is somehow less worthy than Adams’s usual stuff (it’s not) or if you feel more comfortable taking your shots of pain from a tortured middle-aged man than an in-control young woman,” he writes, cleverly if unkindly.

Whereas Caramanica misses the point or chooses to ignore it—The New Yorker’s Ian Crouch gets it mostly right, especially in his closing: “It’s clear that he has a good time making sad songs,” he says of Adams’ career-long predilection. “This might seem like insincerity, like pathos conjured out of thin air in a kind of musical magic trick. But Adams’s confusing motivations have always been part of whatever tension surrounds his music. Something in his state of mind and musical sensibility listened to the romantic exuberance of a young woman’s pop album and heard his own melancholy. He responded with music that is both personal and generous.”

Writing in Esquire, Tom Junod interprets the dynamic that animates this virtual collaboration. “As a songwriter, [Swift] is somehow able to make her singular celebrity representative to her young fans, and to make her travails with her famous friends and boyfriends sound like everybody else's,” he points out. “Ryan Adams can do a lot with his songs, but he can't quite do that, and so it's interesting to see what he does on 1989 with a collection of songs so specific to the experience of youth: He makes them about the experience of aging. He does this not by changing them but rather by respecting them; from ‘Welcome to New York’ to ‘Clean,’ he plays them straight, with the lyrics adjusted only for gender considerations and without even a hint of irony.”

What hasn’t yet been pointed out is that there’s an apparent precedent for this move in Adams’ massive cache of recordings. In 2002, he claimed to have recorded a cover of The Strokes’ debut album Is This It, though it’s never been released. “I covered the whole album on my four-track,” he told NME that March. “I covered it as a blues record. My band has heard it; they all think it’s pretty funny. It isn’t making fun of Strokes, it’s because I really like them a lot.”

Like that project as he described it, Adams’ 1989 is an affectionate work, but it isn’t funny—not in the least.

When he began playing around with the idea last December, Adams was devastated by the unraveling of his six-year marriage to Mandy Moore (the couple confirmed they were splitting a month later), and he found something deeply relatable in Swift’s songs of romantic ecstasy and disappointment—so much so that he decided to appropriate them because they mirrored his own heightened emotions at this pivotal point in his life.

The notion of a 40-year-old male identifying with the feelings of a 25-year-old woman is incongruous only if you fail to pick up the universality of these experiences and the timeless allure of Swift’s songcraft. Adams heard 1989 as a breakup album in the time-honored tradition of the form, and while Swift's response to romantic travail is ultimately defiant, Adams’ is heart-wrenchingly bittersweet, not unlike another contemporary breakup album he professed his admiration for when I interviewed him a year ago: The War on DrugsLost in the Dream.

In a sense, Adams’ 1989 owes as much both emotionally and sonically to Adam Granduciel’s modern-day classic as it does to Swift’s painstakingly executed work, a blockbuster for good reason. Adams says he initially attempted to approach his interpretation of 1989 in the stripped-down, nakedly emotional fashion of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, but as the project evolved, it took on the widescreen scale of Springsteen and Tom Petty’s epic late-’70s albums, like Darkness on the Edge of Town and Damn the Torpedoes, which Granduciel so memorably drew from in making Lost in the Dream. Play Swift's original version of "Wildest Dreams," Adams' take on the same song and The War on Drugs' "Eyes to the Wind" chart the arc of a relationship from sunrise to midnight with strikingly similar splendor and poignancy. 

Based on the clues I’m picking up, I can’t help but conclude that Adams’ 1989 is an appropriation of both of these albums in equal measure, which makes his unlikely achievement doubly captivating.