We gave it an A-
Taylor Swift’s squad—that endlessly documented, ever–expanding amoeba of supermodels, TV starlets, and sundry other plus-ones—gained a rogue member last month when Adams announced he would be covering 1989 in full. He’s hardly the first indie godhead to take her eight-times-platinum pop juggernaut on: Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus delivered a ramshackle “Blank Space” earlier this year, reportedly at his daughter’s request, and a long history of winky cross-genre reimaginings (see: Arcade Fire’s “Motownphilly,” Ed Sheeran’s “Trap Queen,” whole subcategories of YouTube) stretches out behind him.
But there’s nothing ironic or tossed off about Adams’ interpretations. By stripping all 13 tracks of their pony-stomp synths and high-gloss studio sheen, he reveals the bones of what are essentially timeless, genre-less songs. “Blank Space,” “Bad Blood,” and “How You Get the Girl” become pretty, ruminative ballads; the winsome, wispy “Style” is suddenly fortified with Bono-esque vocals and Achtung Baby-era guitar jangle; “Shake It Off” goes straight for Springsteen. “This Love” is beautifully reduced to little more than a quavering vocal and a delicate piano line, while “I Know Places” could be Brandon Flowers’ strummy, sequinned take on desert rock, and “Clean” sounds like a polished evolution of Adams’ own early alt-country outfit Whiskeytown.
It is a little strange to hear “Welcome to New York” coming from the mouth of the same man who made one of the most enduring accidental anthems of post-9/11 Manhattan almost exactly 14 years ago; even with his added gravitas, the chorus still sounds less like a lyric than the tag line on a taxi receipt. And there may be a lot of die-hard fans in either camp who won’t be able to get past the idea of these two parallel lines intersecting long enough to give Adams’ 1989 an unprejudiced listen.
They wouldn’t be completely wrong: If turning the biggest, shiniest pop record of the past year into a survey course in classic rock economy sounds like a novelty, it is. But it’s also the best kind—one that brings two divergent artists together in smart, unexpected ways, and somehow manages to reveal the best of both of them.