Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Filling in the blanks

with 76 comments

Taylor Swift

Earlier this week, Ryan Adams released an album in which he covers every song, in order, from Taylor Swift’s 1989. It’s a project that has inspired a fair amount of media bemusement, and although Adams explains his thought process in detail in an excellent interview with Steven Hyden at Grantland, I’d prefer to think that it was the only way he could get these songs out of his head. One track or another has been running in my own brain more or less continuously for months, and I’ll often look around, surprised, upon realizing that “All You Had to Do Was Stay” or “I Know Places” has been playing for hours in my subconscious without my knowing it. And I’m not alone. 1989 is pretty much a perfect model of precisely the kind of album you want from the biggest pop star in the world: on its own terms, it’s magnificent, executed throughout at what ought to be an unsustainably high pitch of technical proficiency, but it’s also a little relentless in its insistence on seizing the listener’s ear and never letting go. Every song could be a number one single, and while the result is easy to love, it can be hard to like. Adams, very shrewdly, has taken the album as a rock-solid spine from which he can explore in unexpected directions while being able to fall back on his source at any time. It’s a foolproof blueprint that he uses to construct something shaggier and more eccentric, in a style that he describes as “somewhere between Darkness on the Edge of Town and Meat is Murder.”

But it wouldn’t work at all if the underlying material weren’t close to infallible. I may as well start with “Blank Space,” which I’m not ashamed to say is one of my favorite pop songs of the decade. It hasn’t achieved the same level of cultural ubiquity as “Shake It Off,” but it’s a much stronger track: the latter is loaded with tricks and gimmicks, and it can come off as slightly too eager to please, while “Blank Space” is so supremely confident in its own quality that it needs little more than an electropop beat and Swift’s deadpan delivery of some fiendishly clever lyrics. It’s been compared to Lorde, who certainly provides it with a template for its studied, somewhat fussy minimalism, but it’s really more a question of a song that is good enough to make an indelible impression while doing as little as possible. And for once, it isn’t the kind of love song we’ve heard a million times before, mocking Swift’s public reputation as a maneater while subtly reinforcing it through the sheer specificity of its observations. (My favorite line, which evokes a movie’s worth of plot in a few words: “New money, suit and tie / I can read you like a magazine.”) In its crystalline, chilly perfection, it’s the ultimate realization of the approach refined by cowriter Max Martin, as Bonnie McKee, one of his disciples, once described it to The New Yorker: “A line has to have a certain number of syllables, and the next line has to be its mirror image.” “Blank Space” is meant to be both enticing and just a bit frightening, and its form and content make for a perfect match.

Ryan Adams

Adams’s cover is a different animal entirely. Its mode is closer to Iron and Wine, and its delivery is quiet, almost conversational. Instead of demanding our attention, it insinuates itself gradually, and the result is oddly moving, as if a core of emotion had been released from the cryogenic freeze in which it had been suspended. As Adams says in his interview with Hyden: “We did ‘Blank Space’ and I knew, Wow, this record is going to tell as much of a story as my own record. The lotus blossomed.” And there’s a strange sense in which the combination of Swift and Adams gets at something fundamental about my own feelings about art and how it works. Any creative endeavor is a series of covers of previously recorded material, except that in most cases, the artist is collaborating with himself: you start with the germ of an idea, work it out in a somewhat clinical way, and then, if you’re lucky, you grope your way back to the initial emotion through a long process of revision and introspection. Usually, it’s time that makes the difference, with any extended work of art turning into a partnership with the previous versions of yourself that existed at various points in the past. In the case of 1989, those two sides happen to be split into two different people, but the principle remain the same. David Mamet likes to talk about the Apollonian side of the playwright that structures the plot and the Dionysian side that writes the dialogue, which is also embodied in the opposing but complementary forces of the screenwriter and director, and the collision between Swift and Adams sets up a similar vibration.

To put it another way, the original version of “Blank Space” is like an outline so logical and strong that it could be released on its own, while the cover is a more leisurely attempt to tease out additional resonance. (The contrast between the two approaches also reflects the difference between an album written and recorded under enormous pressure and a pet project that even its creator never thought would see the light of day.) And I’m glad that both exist, especially because the result tells us more about both Swift and Adams than either could convey themselves. As Adams says to Hyden:

But when you break a song down to what it is, to its bones—the emotional structure, the way the words are, the cycles in the song—there’s usually a blueprint there, a fingerprint. Like, the DNA of the song usually tells the story of the writer.

Adams’s covers give us a new perspective on the originals, with their fanatically polished but impersonal seductiveness, but Swift’s songs also serve as a baseline to remind us of what Adams brings to the table as a performer, which might not be as clear if he were singing his own compositions. It may be true, as Spencer Kornhaber puts it in The Atlantic, that Adams breaks with Martin’s syllable obsession, “delivering words in accordance with their meaning rather than out of a desire to bore a hole into the listener’s memory.” But the result wouldn’t be nearly as effective if those syllables didn’t also align.

Written by nevalalee

September 23, 2015 at 9:51 am

76 Responses

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  1. this is so good!

    RevieWow

    October 4, 2015 at 11:21 am

  2. Watch my blooooogg

    espehaleblog

    October 4, 2015 at 11:42 am

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  4. Great post, follow me n reblog this on aku tc ya https://konveksijakartass.wordpress.com/

  5. Hai

    Masker Spirulina

    October 4, 2015 at 2:21 pm

  6. Cool analysis & I definitely agree. Check out my blog if you need a place to wind down.

    toreik

    October 4, 2015 at 2:53 pm

  7. Nice! Such a big body of work, covering all those songs! Thank you for this post.. its an in-dept analysis! Are you on twitter? Please read, comment! http://bit.ly/1OdE6Tg

    alwynnalwynn

    October 4, 2015 at 4:04 pm

  8. Such an interesting post.

    I live ‘Blank Space’ to heaven and back.

    uju

    October 4, 2015 at 5:34 pm

  9. Great job! You make some very interesting points and it is well written!

    Kianna

    October 4, 2015 at 6:35 pm

  10. So interesting🙌🏻

    adayinthelifeofmexo

    October 4, 2015 at 6:35 pm

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    thelifetimeofparis

    October 4, 2015 at 10:51 pm

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    Manisha

    October 5, 2015 at 12:01 am

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    seila95

    October 5, 2015 at 4:02 am

  14. Cool

    testaccnt2basic

    October 5, 2015 at 6:15 am

  15. Clearly I need to stop ignoring TS. I mean, I’ll shake mine to ‘Shake It Off’ if it comes on the radio, and I do enjoy the wicked ‘Blank Script’ medical parody of ‘Blank Space,’ but I’ve never sought out her music, despite it’s solid popularity. In fact, I somewhat reflexively, dismissively skip any of her songs I can on Pandora… I’ll try to be a touch less Skip trigger happy, thank you.

    Gold Standard Test

    October 5, 2015 at 6:36 am

  16. Well written and some good points, I agree!

    Stuart M. Perkins

    October 5, 2015 at 7:23 am

  17. I love this. But honestly, I directly tap this video cuz I saw the name : “Taylor Swift”. And I’m such an obsessive swiftie.

    Cupcake

    October 5, 2015 at 8:08 am

  18. Hmm, I’m not really someone who listens to either Taylor Swift or Ryan Adams, but this was an interesting article nonetheless.

    SciFi and Scary

    October 5, 2015 at 8:46 am

  19. My blog!!! Adventures :)

    ellanebadong

    October 5, 2015 at 9:04 am

  20. Good

    sulaeman

    October 5, 2015 at 9:42 am

  21. It’s nice

    cgffd

    October 5, 2015 at 10:12 am

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    Jishnu Bandyopadhyay

    October 5, 2015 at 10:46 am

  23. Nice…i like

    Ipa Suheti

    October 5, 2015 at 11:52 am

  24. Alec, this is such a good article. I am so obsessed and in love with Taylor. I really love her and there is no one like her.

    When Ryan Adams released 1989, I also fell in love with the songs.

    Its like falling in love with the same person everyday. And everyday, as you listen to those songs, you kind of remind yourself why you fell in love with it.

    Taylor released 1989 almost a year back and as a true Swiftie, I am still pretty much obsessed with the record.

    With what Ryan did, we saw that music does not need to be defined by genre/artist. It is to be appreciated by everyone.

    Thanks for this wonderful piece!

    nurfatmaperveen

    October 5, 2015 at 11:55 am

  25. Amazing

    milnademilly

    October 5, 2015 at 12:19 pm

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    Poetess Dee

    October 5, 2015 at 2:46 pm

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    October 5, 2015 at 3:29 pm

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    enockogwari

    October 5, 2015 at 4:12 pm

  29. Brillient job

    sonabullet

    October 5, 2015 at 9:49 pm

  30. Like it

    amykhiangte

    October 6, 2015 at 7:17 am

  31. Really glad I discovered your excellent post and I’m now enjoying listening to Ryan Adam’s ‘1989’ tracks on YouTube … love it and never heard Ryan Adams before. Interesting how music affects us differently depending on who is singing, the arrangement, instrumentals and emotion.

  32. good carry own

    ramesh kumar mahanwal

    October 6, 2015 at 11:54 am

  33. Gd

    arfanfrk

    October 7, 2015 at 9:33 am

  34. Really interesting, I actually just learned of this endeavor last week on our local indie radio station. I immediately listened to it and am very impressed. I have never been a fan of Taylor Swift until “Shake it Off”, that one broke the ice. She’s so funny and clever. However, “Blank Space” stole my heart, from the lyrics to the video she had me. My favorite line is “darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream “. After reading your post I am ready to hear the whole album of Tay herself. However since I primarily use Spotify I’ll have to find another way. I am going to listen to both and I believe after reading your post be prepared to be blown away!

    jessthebaum

    October 7, 2015 at 4:35 pm

  35. Hey ! I read your blogs and they were appreciated . would you mind checking out my blogs and just guide me in any case. Thank you

    Deepasha Jha

    October 8, 2015 at 4:43 am

  36. honestbrain.wordpress.com

    Deepasha Jha

    October 8, 2015 at 4:44 am

  37. I would love to know your opinions on the fact that 1989 is an entire genre appropriation of Lana del ray. I know that’s the way music goes. But unlike here it was not a tribute. Would love your thoughts

    nadianyc

    October 8, 2015 at 6:49 am

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    October 8, 2015 at 9:17 am

  39. Watch my blog my dear all

    davishthong

    October 8, 2015 at 1:11 pm

  40. Hello

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    October 8, 2015 at 1:12 pm

  41. he did.

    gregdreads

    October 8, 2015 at 11:18 pm

  42. Do check my travel blog! nimitode.wordpress.com

    nimitode

    October 9, 2015 at 5:55 am

  43. This post is so true, I can totally relate to your thoughts!

    goldengirlx

    October 9, 2015 at 2:48 pm

  44. I really love Taylor, but I did not think 1989 was her best album. Not my type of music. I loved the lyrics though, so a totally different look on those sons is appreciated by me a lot.

    CJ-

    October 11, 2015 at 11:06 am

  45. @Gold Standard Test: Glad you enjoyed it! (As usual, I got into Taylor Swift only after she became impossible to avoid. I keep meaning to check out some of her older stuff.)

    nevalalee

    October 11, 2015 at 8:19 pm

  46. @Cupcake: My wife and I talk about her more often than most of our own friends.

    nevalalee

    October 11, 2015 at 8:20 pm

  47. @nurfatmaperveen: Glad you enjoyed it! 1989 was already an album that wasn’t going to be forgotten, but I think the combination of Swift and Adams results in something really special. (I like the Adams album a lot now, but I would have been obsessed with it in college.)

    nevalalee

    October 11, 2015 at 8:21 pm

  48. @Waves and Pebbles: Glad you liked it—and I’m especially glad to have turned you on to something you enjoy.

    nevalalee

    October 11, 2015 at 8:23 pm

  49. @jessthebaum: I think you’ll like the whole thing. There really isn’t a weak song, and the album tracks are often more interesting—at least to my ears—than the ones that have been released as singles.

    nevalalee

    October 11, 2015 at 8:24 pm

  50. @nadianyc: I think that Swift and Del Rey are ultimately playing the same game, and it’s all fair when you’re operating at those levels.

    nevalalee

    October 11, 2015 at 8:25 pm

  51. @CJ: Glad you liked it! The lyrics for the whole album are surprisingly strong.

    nevalalee

    October 11, 2015 at 8:31 pm

  52. And a belated thanks to everyone who commented and liked this post—I hope some of you will stick around!

    nevalalee

    October 11, 2015 at 8:32 pm

  53. Thank you. One of the things I love about blogging and social media is how you can discover so many new things through contact with others across the world.

  54. I’ve been dying to listen to Adams cover track. Now I can’t wait to go listen. Thanks for sharing.

    Jessica Joy

    October 12, 2015 at 9:53 am

  55. Anishad Anshu

    October 12, 2015 at 6:41 pm

  56. Like you people

    enockogwari

    October 13, 2015 at 11:09 am

  57. I was never really a Taylor Swift fan until my roommates made me listen to The 1989 album. I actually didn’t even know about Ryan Adam’s covers until I came across your post, and I’m actually really glad now that I did! I love what he did with these songs, and I enjoyed reading your post. Thanks for sharing!

    Grazby

    October 13, 2015 at 1:23 pm

  58. He’s Swift-boating is! Nice job RA!

    PrayThroughHistory

    October 13, 2015 at 2:37 pm

  59. Excellent review! I agree that Adam’s did a nice job taking the blueprints Swift laid down and making it his own.

    helili14

    October 13, 2015 at 3:40 pm

  60. @Grazby: You’re welcome! I wasn’t much of a Swift fan, either, but 1989 is hard to get out of your head.

    nevalalee

    October 16, 2015 at 7:45 pm

  61. @helili14: That’s the mark of a great cover. Adams stands out because he happened to do it for an entire album, and it’d be interesting if more artists did the same.

    nevalalee

    October 16, 2015 at 7:46 pm

  62. I love Adam’s versions of these songs. Some songs like “I Wish You Would” … I like better than the original. In fact, I can’t stand the original! Haha Ryan Adams always has a way of making things sound beautifully tragic… And I love him for that. As a music lover, Music/life blogger, and a advise concert goer…. This whole album makes my ears happy and provokes a new thought with in each song😊

    musicloveandcoffee

    October 18, 2015 at 8:48 am

  63. 1989 is by far one of the best albums ever made. Taylor has truly outdone her self on this one. I am not overly obsessed with the entire album, but some of the songs (Blank Space, Bad Blood, I know places and out of the woods). But Ryan Adams covers are so raw and dark and I love EVERY SINGLE song. Taylor is definitely an artist, but Ryan Adams proved he’s an artist too with this album. I think he broke it down to perfection.

    itlanded

    October 19, 2015 at 9:44 am

  64. Very interesting writing and take on the two. I do prefer Taylor Swift… But he still does an ok job as well. I saw her in person twice in September and Taylor has a way of making you feel important that most singers don’t do.

    Kodiak My Little Grizzly

    October 26, 2015 at 6:42 pm

  65. I am a Taylor Swift fan and Blank Space is probably my favourite song in the last year, so I loved this analysis. Writing was compelling and intriguing! Very cool take. If you get chance please check out my blog and let me know what you think:)

    bettydejene

    October 27, 2015 at 5:15 pm

  66. Wow i did not know he had this album covering all of her 1989, i will definitely be checking that out. I, too, am a huge fan of that album. Every taylor swift album is like a craving for me- every now and then i put it down and pick it back up again and listening is always like coming back home again.

    Shannon Paige

    October 31, 2015 at 5:59 am

  67. @musicloveandcoffee: “I Wish You Would” might be the weakest song on the original album, at least to my ears—which only makes the Adams version all the more admirable.

    nevalalee

    November 3, 2015 at 8:09 pm

  68. @itlanded: 1989 is still going strong in my household. “I Know Places” is probably its hidden gem.

    nevalalee

    November 3, 2015 at 8:09 pm

  69. @Kodiak My Little Grizzly: My wife and I keep talking about trying to catch one of her live shows, which seem pretty awesome. We’ll need to find a sitter, though…

    nevalalee

    November 3, 2015 at 8:10 pm

  70. @bettydejene: Glad you liked it!

    nevalalee

    November 3, 2015 at 8:11 pm

  71. @Shannon Paige: 1989 is the first album of hers I’ve heard all the way through. I need to go back and check out the others now, probably starting with Red.

    nevalalee

    November 3, 2015 at 8:13 pm

  72. Oh yes, you MUST! Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

    Shannon Paige

    November 3, 2015 at 8:14 pm

  73. You would not regret it.

    Kodiak My Little Grizzly

    November 8, 2015 at 9:09 am

  74. Great review! Love your witty yet smart writing.

    mytwochapters

    January 5, 2016 at 2:54 am

  75. Thanks so much—glad you liked it!

    nevalalee

    January 10, 2016 at 8:59 pm


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