'1989' Battle Royale: Taylor Swift and Ryan Adams Side-by-Side Review

Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift, who has said that she likes Ryan Adams's cover of her "1989" album, performs in Times Square on New Year's Eve 2015. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

When cult-favorite folk weirdo Ryan Adams announced in early August that he would be releasing an entire cover album of Taylor Swift's 1989, some thought it was an avant-garde experiment, others thought it was a publicity stunt and still more were cautiously optimistic. After all, Swift's 2014 megasmash has spawned such epic singles as "Shake It Off," "Blank Space" and "Bad Blood," and with Adams's promise that they would be recorded in the style of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, there was a lot that could go seriously right or epically wrong. Reviews for Adams's version have been largely positive so far, but that doesn't mean there's no room for skepticism. Newsweek has decided to give both of them the benefit of the doubt and review each track with a panel of three to see who comes out on top.

"Welcome to New York"
Cady Drell:
Considering Taylor's version of "Welcome to New York" made me embarrassed for both Taylor Swift and New York, whereas Ryan's sounds like Bruce Springsteen wrote it, I think his is about as clear a winner as you're going to get.
Zach Schonfeld: "Welcome to New York" has always been the oblivious neon-bright blemish on an otherwise stellar pop album. Ryan Adams gives the song a jangly Springsteen sadness that wasn't previously there—and far improves on the original. Easy winner for this one.
Ryan Bort: I admire Adams trying to go the opposite direction and turn this into an inspirational workingman's ballad, but he's laying on the Springsteen-ian grit a little too thick. C'mon guys, nothing can beat the T. Swift original here.
WINNER: RYAN ADAMS, for NYC Tourism Ambassador 2016

"Blank Space"
Schonfeld:
Adams's performance is sorrowful and sparse, but there is no matching the sugary-turned-vengeful perfection of Swift's original. (Side note: I also adore Stephen Malkmus's half-assed slacker take on the song.)
Drell: Agreed, Zach. Ryan's is sweetly sad, but Taylor's is sweetly sad masked by a blazing pop beat, so she wins the nuance points. Taylor is the clear winner in my mind here.
Bort: This one is no contest. Adams's finger-picking and wispy little bird voice are cute, but I don't know how anyone could even listen to this boring version all the way through. Swift's energy can't be denied here.
WINNER: TAYLOR SWIFT. We'll write her name.

"Style"
Drell: I think this song is just-OK, though Taylor's clear send-up of '80s ballads makes hers more palatable. It sounds like Adams didn't have an idea for how to tackle this one, so he just neutered the original. Taylor again, in my book.
Bort: This is the first clear Adams winner for me. With the traditional instrumentation and raspy, unfinished voice, there's something triumphantly '70s about his version while T. Swift's doesn't deliver on the promise of the funky opening chords.
Schonfeld: I admire Adams for trying to turn the track inside out, but his ragged road-rock arrangement feels unfinished and loses some of the effervescent melodic cues I loved so much in Swift's version. Taylor wins.
WINNER: TAYLOR SWIFT, because even though Ryan Adams actually remembers the '80s, Taylor seems to appreciate them more.

"Out of the Woods"
Bort:
This seems like a throwaway T. Swift track to me, and unlike with "Blank Space," these lyrics are perfect for a sparse, emo Ryan Adams ballad.
Drell: Totally. I could barely listen to the T. Swift version of this song, I usually just skipped through to "Shake It Off." Adams's has a desperation that makes the lyrics actually pop in a way they fall flat in Taylor's version. Though I will say his sounds less like Springsteen and more like Starsailor.
Schonfeld: Opening is a dead ringer for The Replacements' "Here Comes a Regular" (great song). I disagree, Bort. Like on "Blank Space," Adams takes a monstrously fun pop song and strips it down, makes it desolate and sad. Which is good and fine, but I don't think it tops the blown-out '80s bombast of the original. Wow, I like the original "Out of the Woods" way more than you guys.
Drell: It's aight.
WINNER: RYAN ADAMS, despite Zach's pleas for us to reconsider.

"All You Had to Do Was Stay"
Bort:
The strongest part of either version is the sincerity and regret in Adams's rendition of the title line. So for that reason, point to Ryan.
Schonfeld: You know that cartoonish, high-pitched "STAY!" that pops up in the chorus of Taylor's version? This song is worthless for me without that touch. It's ruined! Like, I keep trying to sing the falsetto part and IT'S NOT THERE.
Drell: Oh yeah, I totally agree. This song is perfectly fine in both versions, but I love that weird high-pitched "STAY!" and I just can't orient myself in this world without it. Point Taylor. Though I will say if Ryan Adams added that weird voice maybe he would have won.
WINNER: TAYLOR SWIFT, by one weird, high-pitched word.

"Shake It Off"
Drell: Same thing applies here as it does to "All You Had to Do Was Stay." Adams doesn't say "shake, shake, shake" he just says it once. What's the point? This is a really clear instance of Ryan Adams doubling down super hard on the sound he's going for, and it's a detriment to the way the lyrics and the song's actual tone match up. Taylor again.
Bort: T. Swift's abbreviated laugh after singing "I go on too many dates" is better than the entire Adams version of this song. Not even close.
Schonfeld: Yes! I love that weird giggle.
Drell: I hate that giggle, it sounds sociopathic to me. She still wins this round though.
Schonfeld: But I like Adams's version. He took a peppy, cheerleader-y anthem and (without changing the lyrics) made it sound desperate and sad. Can I call a tie? His vocal delivery brings so much insecurity to the lyrics that aren't there when Taylor sings them. It's interesting.
Drell: That's a compelling argument. I think in terms of sheer firepower I still have to lean all the way to Taylor's side, but you've made it seem like less of a landslide.
Bort: Taylor's "shake shake shake" still landslides the hell out of anything, IMO.
WINNER: TAYLOR SWIFT, who had the far sicker beat.

"I Wish You Would"
Drell: There are no winners here. This song is not that good. A tie for worst.
Bort: This seems like another throwaway T. Swift song and, like "All You Had to Do Was Stay," another one with whiny, desperate lyrics perfect for Adams. But yes, Cady, both of these versions suck.
Drell: So far the common thread with Adams's versions is "desperation." That might be able to sum up this entire project as far as he's concerned.
Schonfeld: It's all right. Another track where Adams's rendition reminds me of The Replacements' ballads. (They weren't really known for ballads but they had some great ones.) I have to give it to Taylor, because I'm obsessed with that "She Drives Me Crazy" snare effect. This is the best snare drum sound in history. It literally sounds like an air hockey table. And Taylor sampled it on "I Wish You Would."
WINNER: TIED, together in mediocrity.

"Bad Blood"
Schonfeld:
Taylor wins. Ryan Adams's rendition feels indistinguishable from much of what came before it. Taylor's version can be grating in parts, but there are so many dramatic swells that I love (like the way she snarls "If you're coming my way—just don't," the way her voice rises on "blood runs cooooold!").
Drell: I actually don't like "Bad Blood" as a song, I think the "girl fight" theme is kind of a terrible message to perpetuate to younger kids (and, truth be told, I'm more of a KatyCat) but I also find Ryan Adams's version practically unlistenable so I guess Taylor wins. His version gives me PTSD flashbacks to seeing guys at coffee shop open mic nights freshman year of college.
Bort: I think Ryan Adams in general gives PTSD flashbacks to freshman year open mic nights.
Drell: Yeah. Like, "Look how funny I am! I'm a guy covering a Taylor Swift song on my acoustic guitar!" LOL. SO. FUNNY.
Bort: What a guy, Ryan Adams. Doesn't take himself too seriously. He'll cover T. Swift. Has Swift commented on this album, by the way?
Schonfeld: She tweets about it every day. She loves it.

Bort: Should have guessed. It is kind of all right, I guess. Don't really mind it. Where are we here? Which song are we on?
WINNER: TAYLOR SWIFT, even though they're both super cool, crazy kids who are best friends with each other probably!

"Wildest Dreams"
Bort:
Up to this point, Adams has been turning T. Swift's pop anthems into downtrodden emo ballads. With "Wildest Dreams" he's trying to punch up one of T. Swift's slower songs and it's not really happening. Love this T. Swift song.
Drell: Me too. It's gorgeous. But Ryan's version is also incredibly beautiful, and he even does the falsetto at the end of "wildest" in the chorus. I can't pick a favorite, they're both great! His version kind of reminds me of Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game."
Bort: Although the more I'm listening to it, this might be the best Adams song so far. I will throw him a bone and call this a tie.
Schonfeld: Taylor's version is dreamy and full of longing. Adams's version captures that longing and channels it into something twangier, but I still prefer Taylor's.
WINNER: TAYLOR SWIFT, though mostly on a technicality. Both versions are great.

"How You Get the Girl"
Bort:
This is another boring Adams one I didn't have patience to get through. Taylor wins.
Drell: I disagree! I think Taylor's is kind of dull, this sounds like a Ryan Adams song!
Schonfeld: This is one of my least favorite songs on Taylor's 1989. It feels like a hollow bid to placate fans of her country roots. Ryan Adams's desolate take is almost unrecognizable, and I think it's an improvement.
Bort: I still vote for T. Swift here, but I agree this is a weak song.
WINNER: RYAN ADAMS, because sad > boring.

"This Love"
Schonfeld:
Big pop albums are always so front-loaded. Taylor pushed some of the most boring songs to the end.
Drell: Seriously. She could lop off the last four songs of this album and it would be better for it.
Bort: "This Love" is another step toward Ryan Adams actually flatlining during one of these covers. Although I don't really like the T. Swift version either.
Drell: Taylor is a really dynamic performer and this song is DOA during her shows, too. I give this one to Ryan Adams because he had nothing to work with.
Schonfeld: Ryan Adams's version is almost unbearably slow though. He's trying to wring a lot of melodrama from a love song that's only OK. I vote Taylor's version.
Bort: To be honest, biggest winner for me is Zach's iPod video. I miss these things.
Schonfeld: It still works!
WINNER: THREE-WAY TIE between TAYLOR SWIFT, RYAN ADAMS and Zach's iPod video, which also hearkens back to 1989.

"I Know Places"
Schonfeld:
I always forget this song exists.
Drell: A good sign.
Bort: I love the bass line and twang of Adams's version. I also love the sexiness of how Taylor sings, "You stand with your hand on my waistline." Close, but point Adams.
Drell: The gothy beginning of her song makes me think Mike Shinoda is gonna drop in with a verse at any time, so that alone makes me want to hand it over to Ryan Adams's goofier, Spaghetti Western take.
Bort: Yeah, this T. Swift album does kind of fall off a cliff after "Wildest Dreams."
Schonfeld: Adams's version has no business being over five minutes long (Taylor's is 3:16), but it's still probably an improvement on one of the album's more disjointed and unsatisfying tracks.
WINNER: RYAN ADAMS, for taking listless pop straw and spinning it into cheeky rock gold.

"Clean"
Bort:
Reluctantly, I will give this one to Adams. I like how it lopes, and Swift's is too dinky.
Drell: I don't trust any song from which the majority of the momentum is derived from mouth noises like "ahh ahh." And this song has the added insult of centering its chorus around the fucking terrible line, "And the rain came pouring down." I too give this one to Adams, and may God have mercy on Swift's soul.
Bort: "When I was drowning that's when I could finally breathe." It's clever because normally when you're drowning you can't breathe.
Schonfeld: Taylor wins. It's a fine, affecting ballad that wraps up the album nicely and returns to her favorite lyrical theme. The lyrics aren't brilliant, but they work.
Drell: What's her favorite lyrical theme?
Schonfeld: Moving on from a doomed relationship.
Bort: Moving to New York City.
Schonfeld: I think Adams should have this one as a 4 a.m. hoarse-voiced solo performance. The full-band jangle is fine, but not especially moving.
WINNER: RYAN ADAMS, because he didn't write it

CONCLUSION: By our tally, that puts Ryan Adams at five wins, Taylor Swift at six wins and two ties for good measure. Taylor wins with the original 1989, though Ryan Adams was close behind with his acoustic, Springsteen-esque send-up of her '80s pop masterpiece. Additionally, Ryan Adams had the burden of proof, and performed swimmingly with the odds against him. Both are solid albums worthy of your time.

'1989' Battle Royale: Taylor Swift and Ryan Adams Side-by-Side Review | Culture