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Review: Why Ryan Adams’s cover of Taylor Swift’s album “1989” is so great

When Ryan Adams started dropping hints that he wanted to cover Taylor Swift’s entire new album—1989—song for song, at first it seemed like a joke. Then, though, things got real—and now the album is here, Ryan Adams’s 1989 in its entirety. There’s nothing offhand about the finished product, which is as fully produced as Adams’s own latest self-titled effort and could easily be mistaken, at least by the casual fan, for a new album of Ryan Adams originals.

1989 seems destined to become the biggest seller of Adams’s career thus far, benefiting as it is from breathless promotion by Swift herself. Her 64 million Twitter followers have seen her tweet or retweet about the album dozens of times since Thursday, when Swift wrote, “Ryan’s music helped shape my songwriting. This is surreal and dreamlike.”

Surreal and dreamlike isn’t a bad description for Adams’s take on 1989, which separates the songs on Swift’s album from their eager-to-please pop production and wraps them in layers of sweet melancholy. The joke here, if there is one, is that Adams’s version actually sounds much more like something that would have been released in 1989 than Swift’s does. Though the Polaroid photo on Swift’s album cover is a stylistic nod to the H.W. Bush years, for the most part the music on her album has little to do with the R&B-infused sound that dominated the charts in her birth year.

Adams’s version, on the other hand, is firmly in the mode he explored with Ryan Adams: the sensitive-dude singer-songwriter rock that densely populated the Top 40 for much of the ’80s. His recent Bryan Adams covers aren’t coincidental, and from the first track on 1989, “Welcome to New York,” some of his Swift covers sound almost like they could have been made by Jackson Browne or Billy Joel in 1986—with their tasteful balance of lead and rhythm guitars, their echo-chamber vocals, and their well-calibrated crescendos. Adams cites Bruce Springsteen and Morrissey as his influences on these recordings, but his uptempo Swift songs would please yuppies as well as hipsters.

I mean that as a compliment: at 40, I’m just a year younger than Adams, and that’s the music I grew up learning to love. The sound fits as comfortably as an old shoe, and in Adams’s renditions, Swift’s songs (many co-written with pop pros like Max Martin) find room to breathe—divorced from the stainless pop production of Swift’s original recordings. Adams reinvents “Shake It Off” as a slow-burning midtempo plea to himself, as though it were about Sunday morning coming down; and “This Love” becomes a delicate ballad, complete with Neil-Young-esque falsetto. If the lyrics don’t quite hold up to the closer scrutiny they invite in these intimate recordings, they certainly don’t collapse either.

In the end, Adams’s 1989 is a celebration of the timeless appeal of sturdy songs and heartfelt performances. There’s a lot of musical context that’s swept up here—from ’80s rock to ’90s alt-country to ’00s pop—but with these absolutely committed performances, Adams elevates these songs to a transcendent realm. That’s not a dis on the original album: Swift was going for something that would work on Top 40 radio now, and she certainly achieved that. Adams follows the material back to his own roots—which are also, to some extent, Swift’s—and in the process, finds something that’s at once both old and new.