Ryan Adams has decided on his costume for Halloween. Judging by his newest album, he will be making the rounds as Taylor Swift.
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His latest rabbit-out-of-a-hat recording is a song-for-song remake of Swift's most recent multi-platinum epic, 1989. But anyone dismissing what Adams has done as a joke is missing out on one of the fall's more intriguing pop experiments.
Known largely as an Americana stylist, Adams has dabbled in practically every genre at his disposal, including metal, country, grunge, folk and pop. The latter shouldn't be all that surprisingly. After all, he was married for over five years to pop princess/actress Mandy Moore. But to interpret a megahit work that was a stylistic departure for the artist who recorded it as recently as last year is something of a first, especially when you consider that artist is still out on tour promoting it (witness Swift's Rupp Arena return next week).
For much of the record, Adams doesn't so much reinvent Swift's songs as fiddle with their temperament. Given the general introspective and often downcast tones of his solo work, Adams treats the jubilancy of 1989 with suspect ears. In short, he de-chirps these tunes.
Style is an arresting case in point. The tune snaps to attention with a battering electric riff, is sung with a kind of withdrawn circumspection and runs its course along an unsettled melodic shoreline. But once it hits the chorus, there is no mistaking who penned the song. Swift's bright, anthemic hooks may sound weightier in Adams' hands, but the sense of pop priority is unwavering.
Then there are songs like Wildest Dreams, a product of pure pop abandon when Swift sings it. But Adams takes a different highway with a jangly Byrds/R.E.M. accent and vocal delivery that is decidedly wistful. Later, I Know Places is an altogether dark tango when compared to what Swift imagined, but again the pop immediacy still glistens.
The big curiosity surrounding the album, outside of its very existence, is the treatment of the pop vocabulary that had Swift shutting the door on the country allegiance that brought her to stardom. Such a lexicon sounds largely retro when Adams addresses it.
Shake It Off, for instance, now sounds like a kissing cousin to Bruce Springsteen's I'm on Fire, shaking off all of Swift's synth-pop perkiness while Bad Blood possesses a lean but outward sadness that defies all the Kendrick Lamar dance accents of the Swift original.
Call it different strokes by different folks. Yet Adams' 1989 is likely to achieve something else. It will get Swift's music to ears that would have never willingly test-driven it before. What a relief. The poor dear really needed some exposure.
(Adams' 1989 is currently available digitally. The CD version will be released on Oct. 30 with the vinyl edition scheduled for December.)
Walter Tunis | Contributing Music Critic