Saturday, December 26, 2015

1989 Was A Good Year

Music is the easiest and safest outlet most of us have for validating the intense feelings we’re not able to hold on our own. The knowing that someone else in the world is teetering between imploding and exploding can bring to light that sense of belonging. If it weren’t for the poets and musicians who justify our deepest fears, joys and longings, we would have no mirror.

As a self-proclaimed lyric junkie, the most meaningful element of a song is the story. The cherry on top is the accompanied melodies -- the ‘second voice’ as I like to call it, to which the feelings are safely attached.

There’s an intense bond that forms with an artist the moment you hear them take the words right out of your mouth.

Music. Today...

Bold beats, hooks, and production value are the virtues in our current musical landscape with most people in these digital days barely able to tell what is being articulated in a song. There's no longer a vinyl LP jacket in their hands as a point of reference. Words are indeed a dying art.

Yet I’m still a contemporary woman with contemporary taste - I’m an enthusiast of pop from every decade, however I’m remarkably drawn to the haunting and heavy.

...The Ryan Adams

In terms of dark and broody, my most-relatable music from a human man is Ryan Adams.

Ryan Adams is an American singer-songwriter musician/poet who falls in the alt-country genre with over 20 years of musicality under his cat-emblemed belt.

Like me, Ryan’s a joyful loner, with childhood wounds that run deep, who’s comfortable with vulnerability, and unpredictable with love choices. Unlike me, he’s actually a pretty decent musician; his lyrics are simple but unstructured, he’s a rock god on his Gibson ES-335, and his voice quality, though subjective, has incredible control and capabilities of a sweet falsetto tone. He’s collaborated with Elton John, Willie Nelson, Johnny Depp, and his cover of Wonderwall is so good that even Noel Gallagher said Adams “is the only person who ever got that song right.”

When Ryan announced on Twitter in the summer of 2015 that he was covering Taylor Swift’s entire “1989” album the world of Rock and Roll purists scratched their heads in disbelief.

Taylor Swift? C'mon.

The juxtaposition to Swift is in itself a clever marketing tactic. She is America’s People-Pleasing Feminist Pop Princess who sells out 75,000 seat stadiums and who is often persecuted, misunderstood and maligned for singing songs about past lovers. But that’s ridiculous and unfair -- all great songwriters write about their torrid love affairs. And she's got strong country roots. My guess is Ryan caught on immediately to the sadness and raw wounds that lay underneath all that pop synth of '1989' and was dying to poke at it.

Her sound may say “John Hughes”, but her stories scream “Shakespeare”.

At that point in time I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Taylor’s; her radio hits Love Story, I Knew You Were Trouble, Blank Space, and Shake it Off are fun to sing in the car with your kids but have little substance, though I could appreciate their verse-chorus structures.

But then the funkalicious guitar on the sexy and sultry Style twisted the knife in me a little because the parallels with my own ‘James Dean’ were too stark. I knew all about a love-lust that kept coming back to life and couldn't be shaken off no matter how hard I tried.

But tbh- Style is just a really awesome pop song.


Regardless of whether it’s Ryan or Taylor singing the sonic 80’s songs on this album its theme is crystal clear with each track pulling the narrative in sequenced order.

The whole album documents a romance of impending doom and disillusionment. It’s a cat-and-mouse, back-and-forth kind of love. It’s a love that doesn’t follow logic, hearts and bodies fuelled by passion and led by pure emotion. Love that may just be about proving your self-worth. Lovers who are incompatible as partners perhaps, but with undeniable chemistry. Lovers who never uttered the words “I love you”, even though they did and probably always will.

It captures the utter grief and disempowerment when loves leaves. The agony of letting go of a love that is both good and bad but was never meant to last forever. It’s sealed with an internal declaration that you will never forget them as long as you live.

Most of us have been there - when you're submerged in it, it can feel like the juice of life.

She vs. He

I listened to the small samples of Ryan’s 1989 and fell in love at first sound. And when I love something or someone, I go deep, reeling on cult-fandom and obsession. Within days I knew every word and every whisper. I was stunned that the Smiths-esque songs were written by Taylor when they sounded so Ryan.

I was dying to listen to the album Taylor had already released almost a year ago. I purchased Taylor’s and my initial criticism was this:

If Taylor Swift is so earnest, why does '1989' sound so fake?

Thank fuck for Ryan who injected authenticity to Taylor’s overproduction and wailing screeching, I thought. She brings the loud, big and bright while he brings the substance. 

Initially I supported Ryan’s “mansplaining” of Taylor’s romantic plights. 

Upon further investigation and listening to both albums on repeat for months, I found myself in a love-triangle with both artists.  I have since retracted the negative criticism towards Tay-Tay.

I have listened to each song at least one hundred times, I know every single syllable, and I love them as if they were my babies.

Taylor is my baby girl - in '1989' making references to her lipstick, her dresses, her gender role. Ryan is my baby boy who honours the femme, doesn’t change all the pronouns and smashes heteronormativity.

But let’s get this straight -- Ryan didn’t do ‘1989’ better, he simply turned her gems into ornate jewellery.

Time to give credit where credit is due: These are Taylor’s stories, the words coming from her heart, the melodies -- her guitar, her piano. There is depth and capability as an artist. If it wasn’t for Taylor there would be no ‘1989’, an album that I can shamelessly admit is my favourite album of 2015 for moving the lovelorn foot-shuffler in me who also wants to get down to those sick beats.

And just why do we feel compelled to write the words we do?

We write to give emotions the movement they need ("e-motion") in order to transform and to not be consumed by them.
We write to heal, to put our emotions somewhere appropriate.
We write to share our stories as a way of finding intimacy with the rest of humanity.

And we write to send messages to our lovers, of course. Even if they are not listening.


Scoring the songs of 1989 (out of 10)

Welcome To New York

She arrives single, fresh-faced and hopeful (imagine slouchy socks and shoulder pads) and everything she could ever want is waiting for her. She’s looking to find her musical sound but she’s going to stumble upon love along the way. Co-written by OneRepublic Ryan Tedder. The lyrics are overly simplified and so is the 80’s synthesizer. (5)

The song opens to the sounds of Jersey shore seagulls. He takes the track, throws on some blue jeans, a bandana and a white t-shirt and gives it a macho mid-tempo rock ‘n roll sound like a Boss. 
Like any true love it drives you crazy but you wouldn’t change anything, anything, anything!(6)

Blank Space

Her tongue-and-cheek response to the media’s perception on being a serial dater. This is not Taylor’s actual approach to relationships, it’s satirical. I’m not a big fan of this song but am a fan of the clean tones in her voice. (5)

He turns this into a ballad and goes for the literal narrative. He's looking for a heart to break so he can punish himself by being deeply regretful for his actions. His trembling voice is beautiful. (4)


My favourite song intro on this album. This song is pop perfection. Despite how vulnerable and pouty she feels around the man who makes her feel un-done, I sense sex-positive undertones and equality in this relationship. The night setting is clear and she’s got him right where she wants him. So does he. Ah, young love. 
He says what you heard is true but I can’t stop thinking about you and I.”(9)

Ryan does this song with pure earnest rock ‘n roll. He displays his committed passion like a peacock. He knows exactly what kind of girl he wants and he's out of breath articulating who she is. He channels Springsteen again, and you really believe he’s going to get everything he wants tonight. (8)

Out Of The Woods

I can’t decide what I love most about this song - the big and bright 80’s sound? The lyrics? The choices? I really like what she did with this catch-phrase as she laments on her dysfunctional relationship: “Are we out of the woods? Are we in the clear yet? Good!”. This is a super fun song to sing at the top of your lungs while gasping for air. (8)

He turns this song into a pleading lullaby that tells the story so clearly of two lovers whose love is always at threat. A perfect teetering-on-break-up ballad. When Ryan sings like he means it, he spits. And you can hear it. Instruments are added at every verse and at every chorus until there is a crescendo of crashing guitars and violins. Then he adds 16 extra bars at the end for you to get some tissue and wipe away the tears. 
The rest of the world was black and white and we were in screaming colour.” (9)

All You Had To Do Was Stay

Taylor’s take is a bubble gum Kiss-off. The squealing “Stay!” came to her in a dream apparently and personally, I love it. 
“People like you always want back the love they pushed aside. People like me are gone forever when you say good-bye.” (8)

Ryan’s take is a rock 'n roll yearning, as if he’s educating his lover. And there's regret in his voice and a warning that they're both going to be sorry. This is one of my top faves from both artists on this album simply because I feel like the words were taken right out of my mouth. (8)

Shake It Off

Another satirical jam a la “Hey Mickey”. The popularity and radio killed this one for me. Cannot even comment objectively. I loathe this song like an ex-lover I can't even bear to run into at the grocery store. (2)

He does this song in the style of Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire”. It’s a hit. He sings like he’s driving an old cadillac in the dead of night on deserted dead-end streets, burning out/coming down and like he may just drive off the Jersey turnpike. Ironically, Ryan brought this song back from the dead for me. (7)

I Wish You Would

She’s lost her love and there’s urgency, mad regret and back-peddling. Another car-themed song with clean simple lyrics that can still break your heart.
We’re a crooked love in a straight line down.(8)

Ryan does his signature alt-country-spit-lyrics and laments regret and sorrow, as if sitting with his buddy Tom Waits, whimpering into his drink at last call.
I miss you too much to be mad anymore.” (8)

Bad Blood

This is just too juvenile of a song (even) for me. I don’t hate it, but it’s another over-commercialized song killed by radio and gloss. (4)

Ryan turns this into a mid-tempo middle-of-the-road country jam. He doesn’t make it great, but how can he when the lyrics are so basic?
“You say sorry just for show. If you live like that you live with ghosts.” (6)

Wildest Dreams

Personally, I find her weakest songs on this album are released as singles. The narrative of this song follows the post-break up of the estranged lovers. The memories are painful, the flashbacks of their sexual escapades are haunting, and the lingering question remains unanswered: "Was I special? Did I matter to you?" (7)

This song is pretty safe and vanilla but he extracts the juice Taylor set him up with. In both versions the instruments and melodies trump the lyrics. (6)

How You Get The Girl

Another bubble-gum pop love song done perfectly. The lovers get back together! And Swift tells exactly the magic formula required to make it happen. A Love-Conquers-All anthem set to high-production value and guitar-picking. (8)

A dragging your feet, kicking leaves, hands in pockets country ballad with the odd booming drum in all the right places. What Ryan does well is he finds the line Taylor shouts and then in his version, highlights it by repetitions or drawing out the vowels like Shakespeare's female protagonists: You could know that I don’t want to let you go.(9)

This Love

The only song on the album completely composed by Taylor. This song captures the bliss when the one you set free comes back. It’s a love song I’m sure touches every teenage girl, yet satisfies that fourteen year old in all of us grown women because alas, she’s still there. Though her vocal chops are nowhere near in Adele’s league, the sentiment is just as strong as Adele’s heart-twisting ballads, though Adele’s lyrics are always problematically literal. Like any savvy lyricist Taylor’s good at using the abstract as to make it accessible for everyone. Taylor uses a continuation of metaphors throughout this album and the way she sets up the false calm after the storm I know this is NOT going to end on a high note.
This love has left a permanent mark, this love is glowing in the dark.” (10)

He stripped down her beautiful ballad to falsetto whispering vocals and piano. I bet money this is Ryan’s favourite song on the album. Not gonna lie, this version has made me cry more times than it has not.
“I fell to my knees. When you’re young you run ---” (10)

I Know Places

Here’s the story of lovers on the run who will stop at nothing to live out their outlawed passion. The world is full of vultures, hunters and chasers and fuck ‘em - they’ll never find us. Here’s bubble-gum-pop’s version of Springsteen’s Born to Run. Now calm down, this is actually a fair comparison and she's earned it. (7)

Rugged. Love it. Took a great song and made it great with just the right amount of electric guitar. (8)


She takes the blooming symbols from “This Love” and drowns them. Taylor’s heavy breathing and sad child-like articulation of every word against the vibraphone shows the raw angst of the break-up as if it has just happened. The theme of this song is cleansing yourself from your addiction, step-by-step. You’ve realized that it’s not the lover you are addicted to -- it’s the high. 
Ten months sober I must admit, just because you’re clean don’t mean you don’t miss it.” (10)

Ryan sings like he’s got some distance - like he’s telling the story from 10 months down the road. Gather round now kids, let me tell you about the time I nearly died from heart break and had to check myself into rehab.
Now that I’m clean I’m never gonna risk it(9)

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