Ryan Adams, "1989" (Spotify)
What if "The End of the Innocence" meant as much to Taylor Swift as "Like a Prayer"?
That's one of many questions that animates Adams' "1989," on which the crafty alt-country singer re-imagines Swift's blockbuster pop album as a polished roots-rock disc. Here his lodestars aren't Madonna or Fine Young Cannibals, as Swift has identified hers, but Don Henley and Tom Petty.
Nobody who has followed Adams' career will be surprised by how deftly he channels the sound of that era. In the decade and a half since he released his solo debut, "Heartbreaker," Adams has explored just about every variety of American guitar music, including stripped-down folk tunes, thrashing punk jams and arena-scaled anthems. Last year, in addition to a self-titled collection of slick but moody rock songs, Adams put out "1984," a pitch-perfect homage to old-school hard-core bands such as Hüsker Dü.
So naturally he gets the booming drums and chorus-effect guitars just right in his versions of "Wildest Dreams," "Welcome to New York" and "Bad Blood." In "Style," he changes Swift's reference to "that James Dean daydream look in your eye" to "that 'Daydream Nation' look in your eye" — a winking acknowledgment of the Sonic Youth album that had people talking at the time.
Yet Adams isn't merely playing an elaborate record-nerd game. He goes deep into Swift's songs, clearly relating to her lyrics about broken relationships, as in "All You Had to Do Was Stay"— "Why'd you have to go and lock me out?" he wonders with a sob in his voice — and "Blank Space," in which he adds an unprintable modifier to emphasize just how reckless he and his ex were.
The celebrity subtext here — and there's no dismissing the celebrity subtext in anything related to Swift — is Adams' recent split from his wife, Mandy Moore. On a practical level, of course, their separation is likely what inspired Adams to undertake this project. But in his appealingly ragged singing you can also hear the mixture of dismay and gratitude any pop listener brings to a song that captures precisely what he or she is going through. It's there in "I Wish You Would," about regretting your actions when it's too late to change them, and "I Know Places," about the pressure that public scrutiny can put on a couple.
And it's there in Adams' cautiously optimistic take on "Clean," in which the narrator finally shakes the last trace of a bad breakup.
An obsessive self-chronicler, Adams will almost certainly write his own songs about whatever went down between him and Moore. Until then, though, you get the sense that he's using "1989" to answer another question: Has anyone else ever felt like this?
Mikael Wood, Los Angeles Times
Richard Hawley, "Hollow Meadows" (Warner Bros.)
After a diversion into heavy, guitar-centric rock with 2012's "Standing at the Sky's Edge," Hawley is back to being the romantic crooner who has become a beloved figure in his native England. The eighth studio album from the former leader of the Brit-pop band the Longpigs is full of moody, brooding, lushly arranged songs that exist outside of time and genre. Hawley's thoughtful, resonant baritone lends every song gravitas, whether he's singing about love, loss or longing. He does melodrama well. His voice sounds weathered on the somber, string-soaked "I Still Want You" and graceful on "Long Time Down." From the chiming, edgy "Which Way" to the understated, introspective "What Love Means," "Hollow Meadows" rings true.
Steve Klinge, Philadelphia Inquirer