Hearing Aide: Ryan Adams’ 1989

Last fall, I bumbled about Meeker Avenue listening to Ryan Adams’ self-titled album until black plastic garbage bags began to line the streets, and I began to feel hectored by the bar-corner security cameras on my side of McCarren Park. I sat on my stoop under the BQE– entombed in the crumbs of a stale relationship, a total of -$2 in my bank account– singing along to “My Wrecking Ball” until tears sluiced down my cheeks. Lonely nights stitched together into a seamless tapestry of nightmares, the smoke from my cigarette billowing into dawns like ghosts. Two weeks of this rigmarole and both Ryan and I finally pooled together our emotional claustrophobia, swore off our belabored relationships, and promised to let go — together.

Following the good into the gone came Taylor Swift’s 1989. A month later. Taylor wasn’t as humble anymore. She was past the youthful sincerity of Fearless and bolder than Red. The righteousness of nothing-lasts-forever pop catapulted me out of my lonely bed. And I began to struggle through the nights with someone new. She laughed off the pain Ryan formerly ached after. 1989 encapsulated early-20s-nonchalance: It was the sound of showing up to work in ripped tights, with crumpled wristbands from the night before, the sound of digging through your pockets in search of loose change to pay for beer, the “fuck it” shrug when the quarters didn’t amount to enough. But 1989 was also the promise of a new beginning (“the best people in life are free”). She declared it the age of adulterated innocence: we were the New Romantics and heartbreak, our national anthem. The blinding light in the sunrise of “Shadows” turned into the pink sunset of “Let Go” and finally helped us see again in “Welcome to New York”– these two albums routed me back to myself.

Juxtaposing these sounds together on a cover album re-opens the same memory they helped weave shut in the first place. Though Adams’ rendition of “Welcome to New York” isn’t quite “My Blue Manhattan”, it strips the song of its slick Swedish appeal, drilling in its place Springsteen-inspired vocals. It surprises me that he didn’t notice it wasn’t a very workers-of-the-world-unite song to begin with–New York isn’t ever really waiting for anyone–but the casual conviction with which he says “it’s been waiting for you” makes me want to believe him. His preoccupation with the Boss persists in his mournful vision of “Shake It Off”, where a redundant synth shows up abruptly in the second half, desperately trying to impersonate the xylophone in Candy’s Room. Ryan seems to miss the point: I want to hear melancholy in “Shake It Off” as much as I want to hear an orchestral horn section in “My Wrecking Ball.” The inclusivity of “Love Is Hell” and the grandeur of Max Martin hooks aren’t mutually exclusive but removing lines like “Dancing on my own/ I’ll make the moves as I go” from the context of heavy-duty pop makes them sound like they were edited out of the Replacements’ “Achin’ to Be.”

After sharing such intimate experiences with Adams’ discography over the past years, I imagined his monsters would resonate with me more than Swift’s but the static and melodically sparse “Out of the Woods” fails to register. He clutches on to the same five notes that linger for the next six minutes. Hushed vocals over simple guitar strumming don’t touch me as much as Taylor’s vocal reach does during the bridge when she sings “when the lights came up you were looking at me”.

“This Love” is doused in an aggrandized churchy reverb and a piano arrangement reminiscent of a self-indulgent Badlands. The original “Love” had a gradual build up that aptly leveled the nervousness and anxiety experienced after a lingering traumatic break up. The bassline supported the tender lyrics with measured dignity, giving ample time and space to superimpose your own story on the track. Adam’s interpretation has less heart in it, and reverb simply doesn’t compare to the integrity of several layers of treated piano and harmony tracks.

Similarly, his take on “Bad Blood” reduces the intention of a hard-hitting eye-for-an-eye song to a pathetic dismissal. His approach takes socially-acceptable angst and makes it too real, too sad, all too soon. “Blank Space,” “I Know Places”, and “Wildest Dreams”, some of the strongest tracks on the original, lack imagination and are unmemorable in his cover album. “Clean” sounds a lot like his earlier “Dancing All Night,” only his 4/4 time signature leaves you wanting something wilder.

The actual songwriting behind “All You Had to Do Was Stay” and “Style” is overshadowed by drums and bass. Rough and breathy vocals on both tracks go to show that this isn’t more than a compulsive inch.

Despite all that, the album holds a few redeeming moments, including “Wish You Would” which, for once, stays true to the original melody. The bare “How You Get the Girl” less hurriedly sells the song from a male perspective. I can see him showing up at the door shaking from the rain.

Before this album, I didn’t think it was within my emotional capacity to dislike anything Ryan ever recorded. Here’s where I admit I was wrong. This album requires fire, time, and a lot more love. That being said, I can’t really hold it against the guy for following through with an impromptu week-long Swift-inspired PaxAm project. Trust me, if my drunken impulses amassed me as much of an audience, I would’ve been doing the same thing all along. Meanwhile, you will find me singing significantly worse versions of both Taylor Swift and Ryan Adams songs at karaoke.


Originally published at nysmusic.com on September 26, 2015.

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