Saturday, November 1, 2014

Taylor Swift goes "full pop" on 1989

In many interviews leading up to the release of 1989, Taylor Swift made it a point to emphasize that her latest album would be her "first documented, official pop album."  Though award nomination categorizations and radio station airplay may disagree, her self-titled debut is the only album that can truly be considered a country record (and even that might be a stretch).  Since then, each of her albums have come at pop music from a slightly different angle, from the country-pop of Fearless to the pop-rock of Speak Now to the singer-songwriter pop of Red.  Taylor Swift is an inveterate pop musician, there's no doubt about it.  But if she wants to call this her first documented, official pop album, then let's just roll with it.

1989 finds Swift free from shackles, not just from the ties of hyphenated pop, but also from her worries.  It's fitting that she chose "Shake It Off" as the lead single, because it serves as her mission statement for the album.  The song is big and dumb and goofy, featuring a strange grab bag of sounds that aren't usually in her wheelhouse: a horn blast here, a not-entirely-successful hip hop breakdown there, that insistent bassline throughout.  But it's so charming and infectious that it just works, and serves as the height of 1989's "so what?" attitude.  When the song was first released, some people criticized her, saying that she's creating a straw man by writing off genuine critics with a simple "haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate" kiss-off.  The real point of the song, however, is the "I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake it off" that comes after it.  It's a song about loving yourself no matter what, and that's so important for a young woman to say to herself, and for other young women to hear.  This is a lighter, more carefree Taylor, and it's an empowering look for her.

Another noted change in this album is Swift's more direct confrontation with her own fame.  She did a little bit of that on Red with "The Lucky One," but its structure made it easier to think of it as an abstract collection of short stories about life in the limelight.  "I Know Places," on the other hand, feels much more raw and real, depicting her relationship with a guy through the lens of paparazzi cameras, hunting Swift and her beau like foxes.  1989 also features her taking on her reputation as a serial dater on the album's most daring song, "Blank Space."  It's not hard to imagine her as Amy Dunne from Gone Girl as she says lines like "I could make the bad guys good for a weekend" or "darling I'm a nightmare dressed like a daydream."  Yeah, she's got a long list of ex-lovers, but she's got a blank space and she's not afraid to write your name either.

It has always been fascinating to track Swift's relationship with sex via her music.  On her first three albums, that relationship was almost nonexistent.  The one exception is "Fifteen" on Fearless, but that song is more about sex as a cautionary tale than as a pleasurable activity and it's, most importantly, about a friend and not herself.  An argument can be made that lines on Red like "took me to places I've never been" and "I'll do anything you say, if you say it with your hands" are about sex, but those are still pretty coy and sweet.  Compare that to 1989, where the references to carnal knowings are downright sexy.  On "Style," she sings "takes me home, lights are off, he's taking off his coat" in a way that oozes sensuality.  And though she may not go as far as overt tunnel-and-train metaphors, lines like "his hands are in my hair, his clothes are in my room" ("Wildest Dreams") are even more evocative.  It's a bold, refreshing move from someone whose image can be so squeaky clean that it comes off as fake to her biggest detractors.

The album is full of sonic risks too.  1989 is a kaleidoscope of sounds and styles.  "Out of the Woods," with its airy background vocals and snares that dissolve into dust when they hit, sounds like the lovechild of M83 and Chvrches.  The noirish "Style" features a slick guitar line that would be perfectly at home on the soundtrack of Drive.  Both "How You Get the Girl" and "All You Had To Do Was Stay" have the sugary, bubblegum sound hinted at on Red's "22."  And "I Wish You Would" is the song that fully makes good on Swift's promise of an 80s sound for this album, complete with choppy guitars and keyboards that glimmer like starbursts, making it sound like something from a deleted scene of a John Hughes film.

This move to "full pop" dulls the edges of her style a little bit, however.  There's no doubt that this is a collection of great pop songs, but it's hard to feel anything when listening to them.  Such a shame, too, given the emotional heights she reached on Red, with songs like "Sad Beautiful Tragic" and "The Last Time."  That's why "Wildest Dreams" is the best song on this one -- it's the lone track that truly stirs my emotions in the same way her previous albums do.  People say it's heavily indebted to Lana Del Rey, and you can see that in the vocal phrasings and the song's ornamentation, but there are so many other things about it that are vintage Taylor Swift.  It's got her terrific attention to detail, a deep sense of yearning at its core, and one of those killer bridges that she seems to be able to concoct in her sleep.

People don't give her enough credit for how good of a lyricist she is either.  Make lazy jokes about how she only writes about boys all you want, but you'd be doing so at the risk of overlooking the pure technique involved in her lyrics.  She's a master of meter, skillfully crafting lines that swirl around beautifully in your mouth when you say them out loud.  (Don't believe me?  Just whisper "careless man's careful daughter" to yourself.  Or the opening passage of "Enchanted."  Or just about any of her lines.)  She's poetic yet precise, able to convey so much in a frightfully small amount of words.  Most of all, she understands the importance of lyrical specificity.  The lyrics are less sharp on 1989, but even still, it's loaded with little gems of detail.  On "Style," it's not just that the boy in question can't keep his eyes on the road.  He can't keep his wild eyes on the road.  It's late at night in her room on "I Wish You Would," but specifically, it's 2 A.M.  The chorus of "Wildest Dreams" takes the time to set the scene of a lover remembering her, "standing in a nice dress, staring at the sunset, babe / red lips and rosy cheeks."  She's a painter, a painter of pictures, and there's no stroke that she won't double back on, just to make it pop a little bit more.

But speaking of Swift talking about boys, she adds a new wrinkle to that too this time around.  Usually, her albums come off like they're about a pastiche of exes, but this one feels like it's about a single tumultuous relationship, one that seems stuck in an endless breakup-makeup cycle.  Let's spot the motif: "We were built to fall apart and fall back together" ("Out of the Woods"), the entire conceit of "Style," "But you'll come back each time you leave" ("Blank Space"), "Makes you wanna run and hide, but it made us turn right back around" ("I Wish You Would"), and so on.  Even "All You Had To Do Was Stay" and "How You Get the Girl" form a neat little pair -- the former features her admonishing his newly contrite demeanor after the latest breakup, while the latter could be seen as her coming around and instructing him on how to get her back.  Previous albums would make this seem sweet; here, it feels sad and destructive.

That's why "Clean" is such an important note to close on, because it's all about breaking that cycle.  Swift usually likes to end her albums on an optimistic note, and this one's no different.  It's all about purging your pain, just finally letting it all out instead of trying to manage it, and coming away better, freer.  I used to have this theory about her first four albums which posited that if you listened to them back-to-back, they chronicle her slow disillusionment with the idea of love.  If that's the case, then this fifth album is about her rising up again with more wisdom, realizing that relationships are a big deal, but they're not the end of the world.  So yes, 1989 is the beginning of the second act of Taylor Swift's career, not because it's her "first documented, official pop album," but because it's her finally realizing that breakups only leave a temporary stain, not a permanent scar.

1 comment:

  1. I have so many thoughts on this album, so there are a bunch of things in my notes that I couldn't fit into this review:

    -In case you didn't know, Taylor Swift has the greatest, most adorable giggle of all time. And it makes its obligatory appearance here on "Shake It Off" (right after she says "I go on too many dates"). It's not quite on the level of a "Hey Stephen" giggle or even a "Stay Stay Stay" giggle, but it's a darn good giggle.

    -You'll see that I make no mention of "Welcome to New York" in my review. That's because I'm not crazy about it, but I do like that she even talks about New York like it's a guy she has a crush on.

    -"Two paper airplanes flying" is such a great way to describe a doomed relationship.

    -Taylor Swift loves sick beats.

    -"We're a crooked love, in a straight line down." NOW TELL ME SHE CAN'T TURN A PHRASE

    -I really hated "This Love" right up until my last listen before this review. The chorus is still pretty dreadful, but I can at least tolerate the song as a whole. Still I can't help feeling like the album loses alot of its momentum in the last three songs. Which is crazy because the three bonus tracks would make a MUCH better ending to the album. "Wonderland" is a superior version of "I Know Places," "You Are in Love" is a much better version of "This Love," and there are no similarities between "Clean" and "New Romantics" but I wouldn't be mad if the former was replaced by the latter. I quite like "Clean," but "New Romantics" is an absolute barnburner of a song. If it were on the standard addition it'd be in the top 3 when it comes to quality.

    -Also, treat yourself and listen to the voice memos on the deluxe version. They're like a director's commentary for the album, and they give a fascinating look into Swift's songwriting process. She has a preternatural gift for melodies.

    -Speaking of melodies, she's so good at creating them that she stuffs her songs with tiny little melodies that could carry a whole verse or song, but she just does it for a line or two and moves on.

    -Taylor Swift is the queen of bridges (see: "Hey Stephen," You're Not Sorry," "Mine"). Songs on here with great bridges: "All You Had To Do Was Stay," "I Wish You Would," "Bad Blood," "Wildest Dreams," "How You Get the Girl," "Clean." Basically every song.

    -"Bad Blood" has drums that sound like Clipse's "Grindin'" Just wonderful.

    -The withering sigh in the chorus of "Wildest Dreams" might be Swift's greatest vocal moment of her career so far.

    -Lyrical motifs on this album: water, car crashes (she even references James Dean, who died in a car crash), fire, dreams and nightmares, red lips

    -"How You Get the Girl" has another T.Swift trademark that separates her from other pop stars: her songs have genuine forward momentum to them. They're not just variations on a theme, they're linear progressions.

    -She's very good at making songs about trying to throw yourself so completely into a relationship, thinking that shutting out the world will be enough to keep it from creeping in anyway. "Wonderland" is a great example of that. "Holy Ground" from her last album is another one.

    -"New Romantics" is basically what "Starlight" should've been.