Editor’s note: Earlier this week, I suggested to our own Ben Dreyfuss that he take a stab at reviewing Ryan Adams’ new adaptation of Taylor Swift’s hit album 1989. Given the chat that Ben and colleague James West published when Swift’s version dropped last October, I figured it was a no-brainer. (I also didn’t necessarily think that I’d be the only one around when it came time to edit it.) Anyway, Ben agreed, and he enlisted Tim McDonnell to tag-team the review, by which I mean chat semi-coherently for what must have been hours.
TRACK 1: “WELCOME TO NEW YORK”
Ben Dreyfuss: Here we go.
Tim McDonnell: Seagulls. We’re on an island.
BD: Welcome to New York.
TM: How can you not like this?
BD: It sounds like a theme song to an ’80s sitcom?
TM: I would watch that sitcom. Every episode.
BD: This really does sort of sound like he is stylizing, like, what’s his name from New Jersey? The Boss? Springsteen!
TM: Descending into the Port Authority from New Jersey to fulfill all your dreams.
BD: I bet he was like “Jersey? That’s basically New York. Let’s go with Springsteen.” Chris Christie would love this cover.
TM: Fist-pumping. Watch for this song at future Christie events. So…better than Tay?
BD: No. I mean, look…no.
TM: Or are we just going with the baseline that none of it is better than Tay?
TRACK 2: “BLANK SPACE”
BD: I hate this.
TM: This is definitely the mopey part.
BD: He is such a whiny baby. I mean, he is SUCH a little crybaby.
TM: I kind of love it. It’s like he’s sitting in your living room playing right to you.
BD: He is the paradigm of a sad little white hipster guitarist.
TM: Okay, but this is actually a pretty sad song. You wouldn’t really know that from the Tay version. There’s so much implied loneliness.
BD: I feel like we’re on a roof after a cast party, and he is trying to find the courage to tell the girl who played opposite him in Skin of Our Teeth that not only is he not gay…he’s actually in love with her.
TM: Tinged with optimism and hope. Also, the reference to old lovers thinking you’re insane.
BD: “If the high was worth the pain.” Babe, it’s always worth the pain.
TM: They’ll tell you I’m insane. BUT I’M NOT OR MAYBE…
BD: “I’M NOT FUCKING INSANE, OKAY? PLEASE BELIEVE ME!”
TM: “I don’t know! Maybe I am! Let’s make out.”
BD: Then you play this sad song in the bathroom and call the therapist in the morning.
TRACK 3: “STYLE”
BD: Yeah, this is different. This is less whiny.
TM: This is very like tech rock—like, I don’t know. Flaming Lips or something.
BD: I like the bass line.
TM: This is what you hear coming from the second-best stage at the music festival, while you’re trying to watch the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
BD: The band that is better than most of them, but still only forgettable.
TM: Not quite good enough for the main stage, but good enough to forget yourself and just dance.
BD: His voice is so weak and sad. I bet Ryan Adams was the dude in college who wrote his feelings into lyrics in a Moleskin.
TRACK 4: “OUT OF THE WOODS”
TM: Okay, now we’re like at the bluegrass festival. Playing at the bandshell in the town square with your mom.
BD: Just an acoustic, a mic, and a few hundred friends in a park in Tennessee. The Town Square Open Mic! And your mom is way too enthusiastic. She’s embarrassing you.
TM: That’s like Ryan Adams’ birthplace probably. He was probably conceived at an open mic.
BD: Can we talk about his voice? It’s so whiny.
TM: It would be better without all the reverb.
BD: Why is it so weak and sad? Maybe he should smoke.
TM: All the indie bands are like obsessed with vocal reverb these days.
BD: I mean, he shouldn’t smoke. Don’t smoke, kids.
TM: No, but he should.
BD: It would make his voice gruffer and sexier.
TM: Smoke more and cut the reverb. Okay, what about the whole concept of this album? What do we think about rewriting whole albums?
BD: The Larger Story™. At first I was turned off by the idea.
TM: Especially for an album that just came out.
BD: One song is one thing, but doing a whole album feels like a purposeless re-creation, but I think I was maybe being too conservative. Like, I can see someone doing interesting things with it. Like imagine Fiona Apple redoing a Chili Peppers album. I mean, that sounds terrible.
TM: Is there a threshold of how much different it has to be to make it worthwhile?
BD: There must be a threshold, or else it’s just masturbatory photocopying.
TM: I like how we just completely tuned out the rest of that song. It was putting me to sleep anyway.
BD: Yeah, I hated it. It went on forever.
TRACK 5: “ALL YOU HAD TO DO WAS STAY”
BD: WHO IS THE FAMOUS SINGER HE SOUNDS LIKE? Is it Springsteen?
TM: Kind of. The Springsteen purists would probably not appreciate that comparison. There are other comparisons that are probably better.
BD: Sorry, Springsteen fans. This sounds like it would be perfect at Giants Stadium. Chris Christie is losing himself in a press box. Should we talk about the pronoun changes? Some people had a little cry about it.
TM: Like when boys sing songs that were originally sung by girls.
BD: Their problem was that he changed the pronouns to “she” instead of “he” or whatever. I think it’s a silly criticism. Like it would be really noticeable if he didn’t change them, and that would in and of itself be a statement, which is maybe good or maybe bad. But clearly one he didn’t want to make and that is his right—the right to abstain.
TRACK 6: “SHAKE IT OFF”
BD: Tay’s version is perfect. Perfect pop song.
TM: Carved from a solid block of pop music viral marble.
BD: Birthed from the head of Zeus, the content creator.
TM: This version is more hedged. He doesn’t actually sound like he’s going to shake it off.
BD: He needs to shake it off. But he sounds like actually he is going to die. He is drinking too much and being angry.
TM: He’s repeating the mantra his therapist fed him. “Shake it off.” But he totally doesn’t buy it.
BD: He is going to get in a fistfight outside a bar, get his ass kicked, get in his truck, drive drunk, and kill a bunch of people. SERENITY NOW!
TM: Shake THAT off. Maybe this is what he’s singing immediately after doing that. That’s what it sounds like.
BD: “Sorry, Mr. Adams, you can’t shake off 5-0.”
TM: “Haters gonna hate.”
BD: “I am not a hater. I am a judge. You killed five people.”
TM: Yeah, he is totally unconvinced of his ability to shake it off.
TRACK 7: “I WISH YOU WOULD”
BD: Oh, another acoustic guitar.
TM: The thing with all of these is that he doesn’t really sound like he’s buying the message.
BD: Yeah, that’s a good point.
TM: Tay works because you believe her. She makes you believe her. She is in that car. She is driving straight ahead. That’s why the songs work.
BD: He’s covering her songs in the sense that he’s singing the lyrics, but he’s not playing the part.
TM: You take the same lyrics and put them in Ryan’s mouth and they don’t really add up. I don’t know what he’s standing for.
BD: My main problem with this album is that like it isn’t fun. It sounds like something you would listen to while being overly dramatic about a breakup.
TM: While riding on a train in Europe with like rain streaking down the windows.
BD: YES. He is looking out of the Eurorail, watching Prague go by in an instant, thinking of…
TM: And drinking a whole bottle of wine by himself.
BD: …some girl.
TRACK 8: “BAD BLOOD”
BD: Taylor was writing about Katy Perry. Who do we think Ryan is thinking of while singing this?
BD: AHHAHAHHAHA. I love that.
TM: Wasn’t he married to someone?
BD: Is he the Ryan Adams who created Glee?
TM: Mandy Moore.
BD: She got left behind the aughts with Gossip Girl and James Frey.
BD: Divorce isn’t very fun.
TM: This album isn’t very fun! I mean, it’s not meant to be fun, I guess.
BD: This album is like something you won’t object to, but it isn’t aiming to win you over. It strives only not to be turned off.
TM: And it’s probably wrong to compare it Tay’s version. It’s its own thing.
BD: But you can’t not compare it. You gotta dance with the one who brung you.
TRACK 9: “WILDEST DREAMS”
BD: So I was at a Taylor Swift-themed SoulCycle last night.
TM: Oh God. Here we go.
BD: And at the end during the stretching they played one of these, and after I walked out, I couldn’t remember what song it was. It just sounded like every other one of his covers.
TM: See, this one kind of works because it’s sort of nostalgic and sad.
BD: Like he’s just reading the words, changing the pronouns, and strumming his dumb acoustic guitar. He sounds like Monsters of Folk. I don’t believe him that it is getting good now. I don’t believe that he knows she’s “so tall.” “SIR, SIR, have you even seen this woman?”
TM: Only from a distance. Restraining order, you know.
BD: Through a telescopic lens. Yeah, I mean, I do feel like this is Songs for the Socially Estranged.
TM: Most of Tay’s songs sound very similar, too, and there’s not a whole lot going on musically, but they’re so fun because she sells the dream.
BD: Tay does the thing where she tries to appeal to every sort of young-adult scenario. Whatever your personal drama in high school is, Taylor has a song for it. This seems all made for the kid who is an emo cutter.
TM: If you strip away the fun, the songs start to fall apart. Tay is good because of Tay.
BD: That’s so true. You can’t strip fun from pop songs, because pop songs are just fantasy nonsense that exist to be fun.
TM: Of course, that would be the message Ryan is trying to telegraph.
TRACK 10: “HOW YOU GET THE GIRL”
BD: His voice is less weak and pathetic here.
TM: But does this sound like he’s getting the girl? No.
BD: No. He sounds upset. He considers this therapy.
TM: This sounds like the girl went home with the jock after prom. After he caught them making out in the bathroom.
BD: Exactly, and now he’s sitting alone on the hood of his car crying in a canyon somewhere, drinking cheap whiskey, playing for whom? He and God and her. Always her. It’s all for her, but then, in reality, he didn’t even love her. He loved the idea of her.
TM: And imagining another life that doesn’t have to be like this.
BD: Thinking that he can’t imagine who he would be had he not had their moments. But what moments did they really have?
TRACK 11: “THIS LOVE”
BD: Ugh. Piano. “My name is Ryan. I can play the piano.”
TM: I think the ones I like more are the more rock and roll ones. There’s a very fine line here between nice music and just falling asleep. I’m already nodding off to this one.
BD: Why did he do this? He must have spent at least some time thinking about this.
TM: Do you think people tried to talk him out of it? “Oh, cool idea…What else are you working on?…Oh, you were serious?”
BD: “Look, Ryan, I like you. I love you. Ryan, I’m your sister. I support you. But this is not a fight you can win.”
TM: “Record it? Like, in a studio?”
BD: “I mean, if you want me to Periscope one song, okay, but…”
TM: “You want the label to pay for this?”
BD: “Have you had a stroke?”
TM: “Look, we know you’re beat up about Mandy.”
BD: “There are other fish in the sea.”
TRACK 12: “I KNOW PLACES”
TM: I like this one. It’s at least different.
BD: The beat is better immediately.
TM: This could be in a Tarantino movie.
BD: Yeah, it’s got style.
TM: Kind of sexy, like we finally left New Jersey and are almost to Mexico City. Sounds like something you could listen to smoking a big joint and driving really fast through the desert in a Jeep.
BD: I do still hate his voice. I know I sound like a broken record, but I hate his voice. “They got the keys, they got the boxes.” Who is he talking about? The landlord? Was he evicted?
TM: If so, he sounds pretty happy about it.
BD: It’s funny that he finally sounds happy in the song about them having to pack up their lives and flee.
TM: That’s what he always wanted anyway. He’s happy to be unhappy.
BD: “They are the hunters, we are the foxes.” Fox hunting isn’t a thing in the US. Are they in Britain?
TM: I wonder if they recorded the whole thing in like one day. First take.
BD: I sort of feel like they may have? “We have 65 minutes. That leaves eight minutes for a smoke break and a three for a piss.”
TRACK 13: “CLEAN”
BD: Okay, so I hate this song even when Taylor sings it. This is my least favorite song on Taylor’s album, so I am open to his being better.
TM: I really think he could have done more on all these to push it to weird new places.
BD: Because he hasn’t!
TM: Yeah, not really.
BD: He’s just played it like any Berklee music student could have.
TM: Apple Music calls this album “intimate” and “disarming.”
BD: “Disarming”? Who the hell is searching for “disarming” on iTunes? They should be on an FBI watchlist for sexual predators.
TM: I actually don’t find it intimate at all.
BD: I don’t know what the hell this is a metaphor for. His heart isn’t in it.
TM: Well, that’s it. Seagulls again. Coney Island?
BD: Okay, I hated that. I hate Ryan Adams.
TM: I mean I wouldn’t necessarily turn it off, but I don’t plan to turn it on again, which is like the opposite of Tay.
BD: Like elevator music, you couldn’t. Okay, I have to run to therapy, but I’ll be back in 30 minutes for final thoughts.
TM: Go have a good cry. At least you can say this is good music to prep for therapy. Therapy pregame with Ryan Adams.
[43 minutes later]
BD: I am back. I had a very nice therapy.
TM: Did Ryan come up? Could you get the songs out of your head?
BD: He came up in spirit, but I described him as “my friend who is going through some things.”
TM: The only one I can remember now is “Wildest Dreams.” That’s the one that stuck with me.
BD: Which is a good segue into…What was this album all about?
TM: Existential angst ironically channeled through happy pop music
TM: Desaturated Taylor Swift. Tay in black and white.
BD: How a constitutionally angsty person can deliver their angst through pop music. “Words mean nothing—it’s all in the the way you say them.”
TM: While Tay is driving to the party, Ryan is hanging his 5 mm B&W portrait of her music on the wall at the art show in the lunchroom on Friday night, alone.
BD: Like a dramatic actor doing a Shakespeare comedy, it’s not going to be funny, but maybe there is some honesty there? Like, some sort of unplugged brutalism? It’s a very sad album. I’m worried about Ryan. I mean, I’m not really worried because, look, people die. But if I knew him better I would be worried. *If I cared.*
TM: So I’m probably not going to listen to that album ever again. It had its moments, but now I just want to listen to the Taylor version. And feel okay about my life again.
BD: I also will never listen. REVIEW: DON’T BUY, but it’s okay in elevators.