What if "The End of the Innocence" meant as much to Taylor Swift as "Like a Prayer"?
That's one of many questions that animates Ryan Adams' "1989," on which the crafty alt-country singer reimagines Swift's blockbuster pop album as a polished roots-rock disc. Here his lodestars aren't Madonna or Fine Young Cannibals, as Swift has identified hers, but Don Henley and Tom Petty (whose "Full Moon Fever" also came out in 1989).
Nobody who's followed Adams' career will be surprised by how deftly he channels the sound of that era. In the decade and a half since he released his solo debut, "Heartbreaker," Adams has explored just about every variety of American guitar music, from stripped-down folk tunes to thrashing punk jams to arena-scaled anthems.
Last year, in addition to a self-titled collection of slick but moody rock songs, Adams put out "1984," a pitch-perfect homage to old-school hardcore bands like Hüsker Dü.
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So naturally he gets the booming drums and chorus-effect guitars just right in his versions of "Wildest Dreams," "Welcome to New York" and "Bad Blood." In "Style," he changes Swift's reference to "that James Dean daydream look in your eye" to "that 'Daydream Nation' look in your eye" – a winking acknowledgment of the Sonic Youth album that had people talking at the time.
Yet Adams, who recorded "1989" at his Pax-Am studio in Hollywood, isn't merely playing an elaborate record-nerd game. He goes deep into Swift's songs, clearly relating to her lyrics about broken relationships, as in "All You Had to Do Was Stay" -- "Why'd you have to go and lock me out?" he wonders with a sob in his voice -- and "Blank Space," where he adds an unprintable modifier to emphasize how reckless he and his ex were.
The celebrity subtext here – and there's no dismissing the celebrity subtext in anything related to Swift – is Adams' recent split from his wife, Mandy Moore. On a practical level, of course, their separation is likely what inspired Adams to undertake this project, given that the guy suddenly had a lot of free time on his hands (and a gear-packed clubhouse in which to spend it).
But in his appealingly ragged singing you can also hear the mixture of dismay and gratitude that any pop listener brings to a song that captures precisely what he or she is going through. It's there in "I Wish You Would," about regretting your actions when it's too late to change them, and "I Know Places," about the pressure that public scrutiny can put on a couple. And it's there in Adams' cautiously optimistic take on "Clean," in which the narrator finally shakes the last trace of a bad breakup.
An obsessive self-chronicler, Adams will almost certainly write his own songs about whatever went down between him and Moore. Until then, though, you get the sense that he's using "1989" to answer another question: Has anyone else ever felt like this?