Ryan Adams, Taylor Swift, And Artistic Conversion
Ryan Adams strikes many as the ultimate "critics artist." But he also may be the critics' anti-ultimate "critics artist" in that his supposedly cliched singer-songwriter approach is tailor-made for the approval of the critics but doesn't always dig for newness or even originality. It’s something that’s “been done before” to them. Perhaps so but when you’re as good at it as Ryan Adams, why stop?
Sometimes that anti-Ryan Adams faction comes down to the usual backlash against any form of hype. Or it's just a simple distaste for the man himself, who at times has displayed selfish, immature, arrogant, churlish and "difficult" behaviour.
In short, the typical, ever-popular tortured artist effect- to lift a Todd Rundgren album title from 1982. Without even reaching mainstream glory, Adams owns the atypical rock star bio down to a tee: foul-mouthed clashes with his critics, onstage blow-ups, disputes with other musicians, curious musical decisions, a celebrity marriage to fellow singer Mandy Moore — that officially ended this year — and a period of drug and alcohol abuse.
While his irascible nature has often made waves as much as his music, that pricklier side of him has mellowed in recent years. Now, thankfully, he lets his songs do the talking a bit more than his controversy-baiting opinions. Ok, maybe not completely — but mostly.
Through it all, even most of his detractors concede that Ryan Adams is a fantastic songwriting talent, often brilliant even. From his beginnings as the frontman of mid-90s alt-country group Whiskeytown to his exalted 2000 debut LP Heartbreaker, he's never had a dull moment personally or professionally. Many critics and fans have loved him from the start and enjoyed everything he's done. Others have held him to the high standard he carved out early or have been skeptics the whole time — some eventually being converted even.
Sometimes to his detriment, Adams makes the attempt to wedge himself into the contemporary country/rock canon (i.e. familiar song titles like ”New York, New York,” “Let It Ride” or “Wish You Were Here”). But Adams delivers vital work more than he delivers dull work. Every one of his LPs — with perhaps the exception of his metal excursion Orion and his super downcast 29 — have offered the goods. Whether dabbling in super-sensitive folk, boot stomping alt-country, snarling punk rock or hard rock, he masters his craft.
That and he's easily the most prolific major artist of the last two decades. He's released 15 studio albums, 4 EPs, a couple unreleased track compilations and a few live albums in just 15 years of work as a solo artist. Is it overkill? Perhaps.
It has resulted in some uneven works — though fewer than such a prolific output rate would conceivably dictate. Though some of his stylistic turns have become almost old-hat, he has not been above sticking to the tried and true — despite what many would believe. This is a man who, as I referenced, did an album of quasi-metal — one that carried outrageous sci-fi overtones and a nearly laughable underlying theme about space invaders. But it was still somewhat interesting.
Adams tackled more atmospheric, 80s radio-friendly material on his most recent studio LP — a self-titled one ironically enough. And it was still interesting if not his most inspired release in a while. He produced Jenny Lewis's delightful 2014 album The Voyager and encouraged her to learn from the songs of Creed to find an emotional core for her material.
The guy is not above appealing to a more mass audience and his musical taste has incredible diversity. Adams is sort of that music geek who collects extensively but also has the ability to write, produce and arrange his own music to pay homage to what he adores.
It's not unlike Elvis Costello who has a near encyclopedic knowledge of several contemporary styles and even has worked at experimenting in classical. Costello has consistently genre-hopped, sometimes to the detriment of his oeuvre but one can never accuse him of barely trying anything new. Adams has done that less so but enough to prove he's not opposed to it. And his latest release proves that.
Now, once in a while he tries a cover and attempts to overhaul a favourite, as he did when his sombre acoustic take on Oasis's "Wonderwall" in 2004 (which struck a chord even with its penman, Noel Gallagher). Rumours were abound over a decade ago that Adams had recorded but not released a track-by-track cover of the Strokes' 2002 debut album, Is This It. Now comes a realization of that emulating approach as he has ridden the omnipresent wave of Taylor Swift hoopla to release an entire track-by-track cover of her smash hit album 1989. That's right, "Shake It Off" and the whole kit and caboodle.
Adams' own 1989 never comes off as kitschy, hackneyed or sardonic even if it does lose its steam near the end. Adams can fairly be accused of trying to fit the album into a familiar mould for his fans and while he succeeds in that, changing the sound of Taylor Swift's well-known pop songs actually reinvents them in a way not unlike his "Wonderwall" did years ago.
In this LP, one discovers that the yearning, clear-headed, ambitious young woman's viewpoint in Taylor's lyrics work well no matter what musical context they're put in. The stripped down folkier settings on Adams' 1989 don't work as well with adapting Swift's material as his shimmering guitar-driven ones, mind you. But the way he jolts new life into otherwise glossy pop like "Welcome To New York," "Blank Space" or "Bad Blood" shows Adams' skills as an interpreter have been overlooked through all his years of crafting beautiful tunes of his own. The fact he found solace in Swift's original while undergoing his divorce from Moore says that her music can reach even the most entrenched giants of indie fame.
Does Adams' cover have the power to convert to the side of Swift? Not necessarily. It's inoffensive, well-crafted pop music — which has become a shocking rarity over these past couple decades in the music industry. But still, that's been done before too and done better. It's no major feat for one to create a fine pop album. To create one that isn't pop but says something unique and pure is the true holy grail.
It goes without saying (so I'll say it) Taylor Swift is no flash in the pan or passing phase. That Adams brings out a lot of the best in her lyrics and melodies — even the barely passable, generic or banal ones, adds depth to her career. The prevailing spirit of Adams' touch on her music doesn't hold up entirely on a full disc. 1989 offers another glimpse into an already majorly popular artist we know all too well as a personality but don't seem to know all too well as a musician and songwriter.