Ryan Adams released his full-album cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 just more than a week ago, and I’ve already read a dozen think-pieces about What It All Means.
Longtime readers, I’m sure, know that I’m not that guy. Wider cultural trends and political statements rarely make their way into this column. I’d much rather talk about the music itself. That’s good and bad – sometimes that broader context would strengthen my work, and I’m aware of that. I just find so much of it less interesting than the music. Same in this case – while much of the talk about Adams’ 1989 has been about the fact that it’s garnering attention from critics and music fans who didn’t have time for Swift’s original, I just think that’s kind of obvious. And, I expect, part of the point.
I’m one of those critics. I like Swift fine, and I think her 1989 is a pretty good glittery pop album. It’s really the same kind of songs she’s been writing (or co-writing) all along, dressed up in pop production, and that’s its strength, I believe. Swift’s country roots ground her more than the people her producers – mainly Max Martin and Shellback – usually work with. But I never felt moved to write about it, or to write about Swift as a pop-cultural force. She’s someone I keep tabs on, and I expect the records she makes in her 30s will be much more interesting.
This, to music fans like me, is why Adams covering Swift’s entire album is fascinating, though. Adams is more of a musical force than a cultural one – he’s one of the best songwriters of his generation (which is my generation too, since we’re the same age) and has crafted a consistent, deep catalog of wonderful tunes. He’s widely respected by his fellow musicians – he could give classes on songwriting, and many names you’d recognize would sign up for them. So if Ryan Adams hears something in 1989 that makes him want to cover the entire record, that’s significant.
That’s not even what’s really interesting, though. Adams could have cranked out half-hearted versions of Swift’s songs and still cashed in on the publicity, but it’s clear that he genuinely loves this record. Adams’ 1989 is a complete reinvention that thoroughly respects the original, recasting it as an ‘80s alternative record, full of chiming guitars and layers of sound. His version moves 1989 from pop radio to college radio – it really sounds like something Brown University’s station, WBRU, might have played when I was in high school. But it does so lovingly, only changing what it has to in order to match Adams’ sensibilities.
In doing so, he’s elevated Swift in the minds of many people who wouldn’t have given her a fair listen. Hearing “Blank Space” as an acoustic plea draws out the sadness that has always been in those lyrics. Playing “Wildest Dreams” the way Tom Petty might have accentuates what a wide-sky-open song of possibility it is. Turning “Shake It Off” into a cousin of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” underlines the resilience that powers it. Stripping “Out of the Woods” down to its barest essentials adds an air of desperation, of crawling to the surface, that was drowned out in the original. This is not a deconstruction of 1989 as much as it is the strongest possible argument Adams could have made for Swift’s songs.
And I think that’s one reason he did it. As much as it’s impossible to predict the mind of Ryan Adams, I think he heard these songs and realized that, in a different context, they’d get much more fair consideration. Adams’ 1989 is too lovingly crafted to be a stunt. I think it’s a show of respect and encouragement. It’s worth noting that when Adams was Swift’s age, he hadn’t even made Heartbreaker yet. I think he sees that Swift’s best songs are ahead of her. I can’t speak for Taylor Swift, but I know that if one of America’s greatest living songwriters decided to cover my entire album, and did it with this much care and love, I’d be encouraged to keep getting better.
I think that’s what this is about: a more experienced and acclaimed songwriter giving a younger colleague a hand up, publicly saying “you’re one of us.” And if his 1989 proves anything, it’s that Swift deserves this encouragement. The songs at the heart of 1989 are good ones, and we need more good songs and good songwriters. Adams’ 1989 did exactly what it was supposed to – it gave me a new appreciation for Swift’s record, while being a swell Ryan Adams album at the same time.
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In a lot of ways, Leigh Nash has taken the opposite journey that Taylor Swift has.
She started off as an accidental pop star, guiding Sixpence None the Richer to its one megahit, “Kiss Me.” Sixpence was a far better band than that fluffy trifle would indicate – the album it’s on also contains a song that is both in 11/4 and in Spanish, for instance – but after “Kiss Me,” they became much more pop-oriented. When Nash went solo in 2006 with Blue on Blue, she went full-on Sarah McLachlan, even working with McLachlan’s longtime producer, Pierre Marchand.
And now here she is, going country. Her third solo record, The State I’m In, is a hard left turn into Nashville territory. Blessedly, it skips the pop-country boulevards altogether, headed straight for the old-school pick-and-twang that town does best. The State I’m In is basically a Pasty Cline album – its songs are steeped in tradition, about loneliness and cruel hearts and yearning for better places, and decorated with strings and steel guitars. Some of these, like the long-horizon ballad “Chicago,” sound like they could be celebrated classics.
As you can imagine, this is a massive change for Nash, and despite her insistence that she was country before she turned to pop and rock, she sounds a little uncomfortable here. She’s always had a wobbly, waifish voice, and many of these songs require someone a little more full-throated. She’s good at the poppier ones, like “Mountain,” with its jaunty keyboards and horns, and “What’s Behind Me,” which sounds like something the Mavericks might do. But when it comes to real country tunes like the title track, her voice doesn’t fit as well as it should.
Still, I’m impressed at Nash’s willingness to veer so sharply into new territory, and at her insistence on making an album rooted in traditional country. I don’t know if this is the right style for her to stick with, but she certainly hasn’t jumped in halfway here. If you’re hoping for Nash to return to her Sixpence sound, you probably won’t find much to enjoy here. But if you like hearing artists explore new terrain, for good and bad, The State I’m In is definitely interesting.
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I’m not absolutely sure yet what I think of Meg Myers.
I don’t think I’ve encountered anyone so deliberately straddling the line between fiercely uncompromising art and please-like-me pop in a while. Like many, I was first exposed to Myers through her unsettling, amazing videos. (My favorite is “Curbstomp,” in which she is smothered to death by sadistic stuffed animals.) She looks like the girl next door, and uses those looks to lull you into a false sense of security – her songs are dark, full of self-loathing, fear and regret. And yet, with the help of her partner in crime, Dr. Rosen Rosen, they’re all huge productions, full-sounding and ready for their close-up. There’s no grime in her work, unless you look closely.
Myers makes these two impulses work together beautifully throughout her debut album, Sorry. Her lyrics are simultaneously heartfelt and clichéd – the word “baby” appears in half the songs, the title track pivots around the line “sorry I lost our love,” and the heartache that songs like “Parade” are built around is pretty generic. But then she stuns with a dark sex song like “Desire,” or a difficult slice of depression like “I Want You to Hate Me.” “Lemon Eyes” is a skipping pop song – tone down those staccato guitars on the chorus and it wouldn’t be out of place on Taylor Swift’s album – but just two songs later, she’s utterly devastating you with “The Morning After,” chronicling a personal tragedy with a lump in her throat.
The music walks those lines gracefully too. Rosen plays nearly all the instruments on this record, most of them electronic, and he works in some Nine Inch Nails and Garbage influences with his modern pop leanings. Myers writes catchy melodies, even for her darkest songs – I sometimes find myself singing “Desire,” which is pretty embarrassing, and “Make a Shadow” is remarkably catchy for a song about hiding from the world. Opener “Hotel” is everything she does well – it shimmers underneath her while she belts out a jaunty melody about giving up (“Wanna love, wanna live, wanna breathe, wanna give, but it’s hard and it’s dark and we’re doomed from the start”), complete with an infectious “whoa-oh-oh.” And right in the middle there, she samples Townes Van Zandt talking about why he writes songs about hopelessness.
That points to intriguing ambitions beyond what’s here, and I will definitely keep listening. In some ways, I hope Meg Myers cranks up the PJ Harvey aspects of what she does, but in some ways, I hope she’s able to keep walking that line, crafting commercial music that doesn’t sound creatively compromised. I think she could be huge, and I’m hoping she makes that journey with all of this fascinating honesty intact.
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I wish I found Chvrches as interesting.
I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t like them. On the contrary, I think they’re swell – Lauren Mayberry has a nice voice, and the trio plays off it well, building chilly yet welcoming electronic beds beneath it. Their second album, Every Open Eye, builds on their first, offering 11 well-crafted electro-pop tunes about love and pain. “Leave a Trace” is a strong single, and gives you a good indication of the album. I like this just fine.
I just don’t have a lot to say about it. Songs like “Keep You On My Side” pulse along nicely, and Mayberry is in fine form throughout. The band slips into an Erasure impression here and there, and I like Erasure, so that’s good. Martin Doherty takes the mic on the finger-pointing “High Enough to Carry You Over,” and while I didn’t need a break from Mayberry’s voice, it’s at least an interesting change. But this is a record that kind of starts and ends without (ahem) leaving a trace. It’s good, definitely, and if you liked the first Chvrches record, you’ll like this even more. I’m just out of words about it.
I have the same problem with Dodge and Burn, the third album from the Dead Weather. It’s exactly the kind of swampy-stompy rock you’ve come to expect from Jack White’s supergroup – if you liked the first two, you’ll like this. The Dead Weather is always White’s opportunity to stay behind the scenes and collaborate more, and that song remains the same on Dodge and Burn. Allison Mosshart, of the Kills, is the true star here – she sings almost all of the lead vocals, and she rocks. She spits through a riff monster like “Buzzkill(er)” with abandon, and it’s a fiery wonder to behold.
But again, this is exactly what you expect it is, almost all the way through. The big exception is the final track, “Impossible Winner,” performed on piano with a string section. This song gives Mosshart the chance to show how tuneful she can be. It’s not a great song, but it is a different one. I feel like I have to mention records like Every Open Eye and Dodge and Burn, since they’re from pretty big names, and I do like them both. But they don’t excite me or surprise me, and as much as I enjoy them, I find myself wishing they did.
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Well, it’s time to wake up Billie Joe Armstrong, because September’s over. That means it’s time for the Third Quarter Report – or, what my top 10 list would look like if I were to publish it right now. Honestly, this is probably going to be pretty close to the finished list. I know of a few things coming out before the end of the year that have potential, but not many, and one of them – the new Mutemath album, Vitals – hasn’t impressed me with either of its singles. Could be some surprises, you never know, but for now, here is what the list looks like:
10. Marah in the Mainsail, Thaumatrope.
9. Lianne la Havas, Blood.
8. Foals, What Went Down.
7. Aqualung, 10 Futures.
6. Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free.
5. Timbre, Sun and Moon.
4. Punch Brothers, The Phosphorescent Blues.
3. Quiet Company, Transgressor.
2. The Dear Hunter, Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise.
1. (Tie) Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly; Sufjan Stevens, Carrie and Lowell.
Eventually I will likely pick between Lamar and Stevens, but not yet. I am still getting equal amounts of awesome out of both, for very different reasons, and I don’t know which I would choose. I have a bunch of Number Elevens, including the Weepies, Copeland, Florence and the Machine, Frank Turner, Joy Williams and Everything Everything. It’s been a pretty good year.
Next week, more, including a tremendous new album from Joe Jackson. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.