Alternative Rock, 2015
Ryan Adams was trying to move on from his divorce from Mandy Moore when he heard Taylor Swift’s 1989 and found it to be “just a joy”. Naturally, he went ahead and did a cover version of every song on that album, and don’t laugh – the result is a sublime kind of heaven. No, it’s not about the novelty of covering Ms Swift’s songs; it’s how Mr Adams is channeling every New Romantics vocalist, specifically The Smiths, with a touch of The Boss’s swagger that gives me the pure unadulterated joy that only a fan of those bands in that era can feel.
Mind you, this is also clearly an album for divorcés and other heartbroken men out there. Mr Adams’s version of Wildest Dreams, my favorite Taylor Swift track to date (oh hush), is sharp enough to cut through even the hardest heart – while Ms Swift is singing about being swept up into a giddy affair that is never meant to last, Mr Adams is being all bittersweet about the inevitable transience and parting. Same words, same melody, but two different worlds of feels. And then there’s Clean, which is pure heartbreak in action: please don’t laugh, but I think someone must be cutting onions nearby as I am listening to it, because baby, it stings so, so hard.
All You Had to Do Was Stay is uptempo, the melody is uplifting – the kind that compels me to run under the sun and close my eyes as I enjoy the warmth on the skin – but then the melancholy in the vocals drive home that this is not a happy song. A man is pouring out his anguish in song to the woman who just walked out of his life. With the cloud of a recently ended relationship hanging over every word, Taylor Swift’s middle finger to the haters that is Shake It Off turns into a despaired effort to put on a nonchalant faςade in order to face the rest of the world. Again, same words, same melody, but oh, the feels of this version that tighten my throat and make me try to clear it a few times. Oh, and the cheesy Bad Blood is now an anthem of self-mockery, as if Mr Adams were mocking himself for messing up his relationship, that makes me want to instinctively cringe inside because, as well-crafted and so good to listen can this song be, the vocals resonate with anguish.
Style is the only track that feels like an odd one out here: it’s still moody, but it is now a reflection of the better times in a relationship, and the wistfulness that permeates this Journey-like anthem is a welcome reprieve from the overwhelming feels of the other tracks.
If I have a complaint, it’s the changing of pronouns in the songs to keep to Mr Adams being a heterosexual male in these songs. Oh come on, this is the present year, no need to be so insecure like that. Still, that’s just a small issue.
From I Wish You Would to I Know Places, there is an underlying sense of longing and melancholy. Were I a more fanciful person, I would say that this 1989 is a front row seat to a show of a man’s heart breaking in real time. It’s a melodious album that captures the nostalgia I will always bear for the beautiful bastards of the New Romantics wave of the 1980s, but it’s also a cathartic journey into that haunting yet terrifying dark place in Mr Adams’s head as he exorcises his inner demons. Via Taylor Swift’s songs of all things. This is such a beautiful yet sensible kind of improbability that gives me hope that the world is still full of wonderful surprises to discover and cherish.
I don’t know whether my heart can take it, but what the heck. Let’s listen to Clean again…