I don’t know about you guys, but I tend to time travel. I’ll get stuck on something that I was into years ago but in a particular month and I have trouble disengaging from it. In January and February of 2016 I was eating a lot of disgusting Strawberry Shortcake M&Ms, playing a lot of Pinball on my Macbook, and I was listening to Ryan Adams’ 1989.
I had a lot of opinions back then in the context of being a very serious Ryan Adams fan, not a Taylor Swift fan exactly, but certainly very very familiar with her work, and also having followed social media very closely in the year leading up to the release. I tried to work through this by listening to various Podcasts on the subject, but they invariably were started with “I’m not familiar with Taylor Swift’s Albums, and I’ve never heard any other Ryan Adams album.” Just a bunch of circle jerking with unoriginal observations like “Shake it Off” sounds like “I’m on Fire.” Hardly the hardcore commentary I wanted to angrily agree with in my car on my commute. I had FEELINGS. And I still do. I can also see that @thebalvenie is a Taylor Swift fan and I can see that he has unsuccessfully tried to engage this board any number of times on her work so… Balv… these thousand+ words are for you.
I want to start by discussing Ryan Adams’ motivation in deciding to release a complete cover version of the most successful album of the previous year. At the time I know a lot of my contemporaries thought it was a publicity stunt. I don’t agree. I do actually believe that the album resonated with him during his divorce, and I also buy his interest in deconstructing the album, but I don’t think it was that simple. I think he was really trying to get people to notice how clever he was, and I do also think that it was a call and answer love-bomb attention grab, throw spaghetti at the wall and see if it sticks attempt to get Taylor’s attention. Still, I do hear a level of sincerity in this album that I’ll go into track by track in this bloated essay.
Welcome to New York
I don’t have to much to say about the album opener, except that it’s interesting to think about how much he really was doing a Bruce Springsteen impression on this track compared to, say, New York, New York or Chelsea Nights. I don’t think this song really resonated with him, he was just like, yeah, I’ve spent some time in New York too when talking himself into covering even the weak spots on this album. It clearly meant more to her as a coming of age marker than it resonated with him as a part-time New Yorker. I think it is interesting how he both starts and ends with track that had little for him to relate to, so the album is bookended in lackluster-ness.
I think the most inventive thing in this song is his acknowledgement of the fact that he drives any woman he dates into an out-of-body rage state. Taylor had related that most of this album was put together with impersonal one-liners she tapped into her notes on her iPhone and then reassembled. This song was the prime example she gave. I think that her use of hyperbole was something that Ryan recognized in his desire for drama and chaos, and he draws those lines really well in this song.
I absolutely think that this is one of the songs that made Ryan decide to cover this album, the ones that meant the most to him are the ones where he re-wrote the lyrics. The irony here is that it only fit in one direction. This is Ryan Adams talking about what a man-whore he is, but this song was re-written and included the depersonalization of serial monogamist Natalie Prass. When I think about the legacy of his relationship with Natalie (a blink and you missed it couple of months that had a huge significance for me, because in my naivety about what he really was, I had so secretly hoped it was going to work out for them) I think about that creepy Natalie Sass concert appearance, the back of the Burn in the Night 7", Outbound Train (controversial, I know, but I think it was not about PB), and of course the fact that the place where she is most notoriously memorialized is in a dumb throw away line about how tight her ass is. She never had that fucking Daydream Nation look in her eye. To paraphrase Anne Sexton, It doesn’t matter who Natalie Prass was, it only matters who Ryan said she was.
Out of the Woods
One of my favorite re-writes of the album, the original was just a mess and such an unlikely radio single. HOWEVER, this is one of those songs that is truly just a cover. There is not one single line in this song that I believe Ryan saw himself in and so it sounds like he’s reading someone else’s diary aloud. This was uncomfortable in the same measure that it was impressive.
All You Had to Do Was Stay
Here’s another one that made him decide to make the album, and our first actual track about his divorce…
Shake It Off
This is his commercial for the (Bruce Springsteen) gimmick of the album.
I Wish You Would
A continuation of All You Had to Do Was Stay. I think it’s interesting that he bills this album as being part of his Divorce Trilogy, there are really very, very few tracks that are directly about that in the way he delivers them. I think it was more the obsessiveness of the project was a coping mechanism he was using to get through the loss of control that was the divorce itself. But there are a few exceptions and these songs are those. You hear similar sentiments echoed all over his follow-up album, Prisoner.
This song is one of those embarrassing overwrites Taylor is guilty of from time to time. Taking a first world problem (Katy Perry lures away tour back-up dancers) and turing it into a WWIII in middle school hate anthem. In that context, it is hilarious how much Ryan Adams loved this song. Make no mistake, kiddos, he meant every word.
Like Prisoner after (Doomsday and Tightrope are both about Buttersworth, not Moore), I think that this album was as much about his current squeeze as it was about his ex-wife. He was in a different place when he was recording this than the place he was when he decided to record it, and this one is about Natalie Prass again. This is, hands down, the most fully realized ideal of his version of the 1980’s new wave sound. It’s dreamy and by far the best track on the whole deal.
How You Get the Girl
Most of this song is just a cover until you get to the plaintive crooning at the end that you could know that I don’t want to let you go. To me, this original vs. cover version is the starkest contrast, way more so than Shake it Off. This bouncy pop-song is one of the most fun moments on the source material, and Ryan turns it very very moody and then makes it personal in a line that you would certainly be forgiven for missing in Taylor’s version. In my opinion, this is literally one of the most honest moments in this mostly dishonest exercise.
The mood continues with this performance. Not so sure how much the lyrics meant to him being that his wife was as good as half his age, but the performance was wrought with enough regret and sadness to get the point across.
I Know Places
Shitty throw away track included for completeness.
Already mentioned that this is just a straight cover, Ryan is leagues behind Taylor when it comes to making peace of any sort with his past.
Anyway, if you made it to the bottom of this post, I commend you. This was the messy, presumptuous, in too deep content I wanted to surface back in 2016, and while obviously the state of the Ryan Adams community is very different now, my take wasn’t exactly flattering then or now.