Thursday, October 1, 2015

ROCKTOBER: Ryan Does Taylor

photo courtesy of
Ryan Adams' re-envisioning of Taylor Swift's 1989 CD that I have not heard is nothing short of staggering.  That's right.  I'm clarifying my stance up front: I have not heard Swift's versions of her songs.  Oh, I've heard "Shake It Off" (who hasn't?) either in passing or in quotation or in performance by my wife's grandniece, but not her songs in her settings.  But I have played the shit out of Ryan Adams' versions over the last 9 days.  My whole family has.

The short version of what I'm about to say: everybody wins here.  Swift wins because the Adams covers have me listening to, respecting, and, most of all, digging her music.  Adams wins because he has taken what are presumably overproduced pop songs and stripped them down to their bare essentials in ways that other ears (mine) can now hear them.  So, yeah, I win, too.

And Billy, my blogmate, wins because some months ago, he was trying to figure out what constitutes good songwriting, and he put up a Taylor Swift song, "Out Of The Woods" against a Ryan Adams song ("Am I Safe?" Was it?  I don't remember).  How prescient now that Adams has brought the two visions together.  And Billy is right, "Out Of The Woods" is a wonderful song, maybe the best on the CD.

I suppose that some of you think that I am writing with one hand tied behind my back, having not heard the Swift versions?  Do you need to hear Dylan's original "All Along The Watchtower" to know that Hendrix's is transcendent?  Must you know Oasis's take on "Wonderwall" to know that Ryan Adams' cover is a great song?  I don't think so.

All I need to know is that Ryan Adams has a new CD of songs by another artist and that songs 1-9 are wonderfully rendered versions of the songs, regardless of what the originals might sound like.  Which is an admission that after "Wildest Dreams," I'm mostly ready for the CD to start over again.  If Adams's version is in the same order as Swift's then she has front loaded her best songs, as Adams himself has been known to do.

Here's what I like.  I like the variety in the songs.  In tone, theme, and melody, it doesn't feel like the same song one after the other.  It doesn't feel like she has a few hit singles and doesn't care about the rest of the songs.  The songs are well-crafted.

And here's what I like.  Whatever the originals may have tried to accomplish, Ryan Adams knows how to sing them, how to arrange them, how to serve them.  There are no solos.  There are no extraneous instruments.  If the song needs a beat, he includes; if the song is more of an intimate confessional, he strips it down.  I did read one review which attempted to refute the notion that Adams had found the sadness in the songs.  The review argued that the sadness was always there.  That is likely true, but that doesn't mean that Adams hasn't played it up.  One need only listen to us version of "Shake It Off" to get a clear sense of the artist ignoring critics in order to pursue a vision.

At the same time, Swift's assertion in Vanity Fair that she does not see songwriting "as a weapon" is only confirmed when she has sch a sympathetic interpreter walking over the same words, perhaps even drawing on his own marital break-up for power, but not condemnation.

Back in the 60's and early 70's, if an artist put out a great song, other people would cover it almost immediately.  Each successive version might have its own run on the charts, it's own consideration from critics.  That trend has been lost until now.

Ultimately, I, not surprisingly, see this fascinating musical occurrence  as a tribute to Ryan Adams, who magnanimously acknowledges Taylor Swift's songwriting craft for those of us who never would have known.  She certainly doesn't need that for her commercial sales, but one has to think, based on her tweets while Adams worked on this, that she craves more than money and adulation.  The recognition of other acknowledged songwriters seems to matter to her.

Adams, on the other hand, stands to gain little, if anything, from this.  Derision from rabid Swift fans who, because of their cognitive dissonance can't acknowledge that some of his versions, I am certain, are superior.  Condescension from those who see this as some kind of toss-off on his part. it isnt like the music world will say that he has gained some credibility bycovering Taylor Swift.

And it isn't like he is lacking inspiration.  He could probably put out a new song every single day and most of them, would at least be pretty good.  But Ryan Adams has a complex muse that he follows, and wherever it takes him, he goes all in, and that is certainly evident on 1989.  he honors the songs while making them his own, which is a pretty neat trick.  Plus, he will get me to listen to her versions, an even neater trick.

P.S.  Welcome to Rocktober.  It's waiting for you.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bob, I couldn't agree more; I've been playing this cd for my juniors and seniors as we do free writing exercises..they've never heard of Ryan Adams before but, of course, they know Taylor Swift, and to a person, they love these revisioning of the songs..