Two broad types of tribute albums exist: single artist or various artists. The former sees one artist paying homage to another by covering a selection of songs (full album or assortment of songs). The latter assembles a group of artists who presumably share an affinity for the original artist. Whatever Nevermind is the latter with a slate of metal artists who followed Nirvana temporally if not also aesthetically. While most of these artists skew toward harder-edge metal than Nirvana did, they all certainly all share Nirvana’s love and value of a good melody, albeit often buried beneath the fuzz and wail of sound. Standout tracks include Kylesa covering Come As You Are, and Nothing’s version of Something In the Way. Both songs stretch originals well under four minutes to more than five by slowing them down and offering more breathing room than the originals. Circa Survive’s Drain You sounds an awful lot like the original, which I think would be a lot of fun live, but adds little to the cannon when recorded. Several tracks, like my personal favorite, Lounge Act by Touche Amor build on the original by showing the broadest palette – from a tender ballad opening to unleashing the same fury Nirvana channeled. Two bonus tracks by sludge metal artists, Thou, could have been left off, which would have both raised the average score and lowered the standard deviation. Overall the Record Store Day release holds up as a fun listen, but is unlikely to supplant the original.
A tribute album is a hard thing to pull off, even when the music the artist(s) are covering is well behind us in time. To cover an entire album of songs that are so embedded in current pop culture is a much more difficult task. On 1989, Adams covers Taylor Swift while walking the line between keeping the nidus of the song intact while still making each his own. He uses ample vocal reverb on most tracks to give a more haunted, less bouncy feel. Even Shake It Off is imbued with a melancholy that the original never hinted at, which gives lines like “It’s gonna be alright/’Cause the players gonna play/And the haters gonna hate” added depth and intensity. Tribute albums demand both great songs and great reinterpretation. What “new” can you bring to the song? To take a great original song and transform it into something different runs the very real risk of making it worse. Adams manages to turn these songs into Ryan Adams’ songs while allowing us to still recite lyrics you have inevitably heard dozens, if not hundreds of times. The big implication here is that, unlike most other tribute albums, when I turn it off, I have Ryan Adams’ version in my head, rather than Swift’s.