I’ve listened to Ryan Adams’ 1989 several times now, and it is exactly how I’ve always heard Taylor Swift’s original version in my mind. Haters gonna hate (hate, hate), but his cover album beautifully reveals her as a strong songwriter. It also demonstrates that Swift and Adams are more closely related to each other musically than Swift is to any other female act currently on the charts. It may seem strange, but true, like you when first discover that the closest genetic relative to the hippopotamus is actually the dolphin.
Whenever I’ve heard songs from Taylor Swift’s 1989, in my mind I’ve always stripped the pop construct wrapped around each to imagine the songs as Swift most likely initially authored them. Adams’ version of 1989 is as close-as-you-can-get to Swift’s original writing of the album before she pumped up the production to explore (and pretty much dominate) the pop genre.
It is difficult to compare Taylor Swift as a songwriting talent to other women her age. While Grammy’s (she has seven) can be handed out sometimes with lesser regard to talent than to fame, it is hard to argue her merit when, at age 20, she became the youngest inductee into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. And, in a town where greater respect is paid more to the songwriters behind country hits than the singers who record them, Swift has won the “Song of the Year” award six times from the Nashville Songwriters Association.
The Adams cover album of 1989 didn’t come out of the blue. The two have written together on unreleased material, and in 2014 he told American Songwriter magazine “Taylor Swift is one of the most fucking amazing writers I’ve ever seen. I’ve sat in this room with her before and heard a song she was constructing on the spot and it was unbelievable. It was pure alchemy. I couldn’t be any different.”
In that interview, the magazine went on to note the similarities between Adams and Swift that I often noted myself as she began her slow move towards pop music:
In a certain ways, however, Adams and Swift are exactly the same. Both found initial success and acclaim as country acts, then shed their cowboy boots for something else (in Swift’s case, pop records; for Adams, rock). They also both write lyrics ripped from their very lives, raw, emotional lines that strike a chord, sometimes even literally, with listeners.
I’m not the first one to note this, and neither is American Songwriter. Industry insiders have been making this comparison for the last four years. So, it is particularly delicious for Adams to record 1989 in a way that demonstrates how closely related to the two artists are to each other in their approach to songwriting.
When Swift released Fearless (2008) three albums ago, we knew that the big pop production of 1989 was coming eventually. Like Adams, she had started her musical career in country music (for Swift, with her 2006 self-titled album Taylor Swift, which she wrote-and-recorded as a high school freshman – often jotting down lyrics and hooks in math class). But, also like Adams, Swift seemed eager to move on to explore other genres. The Nashville industry and her country music fans didn’t want to let her go. She had become a darling to both.
As Swift began faced a backlash from some country fans for “going pop” with her fourth album Red (2012), she gained praise from critics who noted her ability to adapt her core songwriting style to a new genre. This is what Adams has always masterfully done.
When Taylor Swift’s 1989 was released last year it was exactly the full-pop album that Swift had been indicating that she had wanted to explore. It was a mega hit. In came a deluge of new pop fans. But, underneath the (well crafted) pop production remained an album that was true to Taylor Swift’s natural writing style. It was this album which I always heard in my head underneath the bubble gum wrap-around, and it was this album that Adams wanted to reveal with his version of 1989. As he told Rolling Stone about his process “I was listening to that record and thinking, ‘I hear more. Not that there was anything missing. I would just think about the sentiments in the songs and the configurations.”
With her version of 1989, Taylor Swift has conquered pop. It would be easy for Swift to record another pop album following its success. And, to be fair, that pop album would probably be amazing. But, with his version of 1989, Adams shows us that there is indeed more to hear. Just as Swift maintained the integrity of her songwriting style while adopting it to the pop genre, she shouldn’t be afraid to explore other genres. She has the talent to do that.
Apart from songwriting and performing, Ryan Adams has produced albums for acts ranging from Willie Nelson to Fall Out Boy. An Adams-produced Taylor Swift album could tease out a sound that would be a natural fit for the artist, and reminiscent of Adams’ work in the mid-2000’s with The Cardinals. That would be something I would pay all my money to hear.
Taylor Swift has already secured herself staying power. And with five critically-acclaimed and highly successful albums to her credit, she is already an industry veteran at age 25. Swift isn’t going anywhere. She may release a few more pop albums in her current style, but Adams’ 1989 demonstrates that she has plenty of genres to explore when she is ready. If Swift’s 1989 showcases what she can deliver in the pop genre at her then-age of 25, imagine what she’ll be able to produce at age 35.