Filling in the blanks
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.
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.