Taylor Swift ‘1989’ – Review

29 Oct

‘Welcome to New York’ is the first song on the new Taylor Swift album, her self-stylised “pop” record (as if her other albums weren’t pop). But it’s less a pop song and more an idea of a pop song. A representation of a pop idea. The idea of pop as escapism or a dreamscape, as well as New York as an escapist location or dream of a city. The New York she describes has little to do with the city itself and more to do with the city of her imagination, and all the wonderful new things it represents. The track is dire; a bland Katy Perry rip off that pales in comparison to ‘Red’s two classic lead singles (‘We Are Never Getting Back Together’ and ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’) but it lays out Taylor’s ambition. ‘Everybody here wanted something more’ she says, and later, ‘it’s a new soundtrack’, ‘the lights are so bright’ and most tellingly ‘everybody here was somebody else before.’ The song is the musical equivalent of this idea. Taylor has packed her bags and set up camp in a new dimension. Supposedly.

Actually ‘1989‘ isn‘t all that different. Sure the guitars have faded in to the back ground, and trendy production is occupying most of the space, but it still sounds like a distinctly Taylor Swift type of record. Ok, ‘Welcome to New York’ is different. It’s the first TS song I can remember that isn’t about an affair of the heart in any way. 80% of her songs are about heartbreak, 15% are about the heady, magical ‘in love’ stage, and then you get the anomalies like ‘Mean’ which are about other emotions. But ‘1989’ is still a Taylor Swift album and it’s still predominantly about heartbreak. ‘Welcome to New York’ is an unnecessary red herring, and a couple of other clangers aside (the Press-baiting ’I Know Places’ for example) she’s still singing in the first person about… feelings.

The difference is she sounds somewhat removed from the heartbreak this time around. ‘Red’ was raw, bloody, sad and at times angstyy and bitingly confident. On ‘1989’ she’s taken a step back, relaxed and considered things from a distance. She sounds mature and wry. That’s the album’s downfall in a way, because the main thing Taylor Swift has going for her is her youthful, emotional honesty. She gets so close to the listener you can almost feel her breath on your face. You get to know her through her songs, and through her lyrics which in the past have been funny, forthright and clever. On some of these songs you feel a disconnect between the Taylor you’ve come to know, and the character she presents. She plays an unconvincing femme fetale on ‘Blank Space’, a reckless diva on ‘Style’ and uses an alcoholic analogy on ‘Clean’. These songs are as expertly crafted as ever, and feature fine melodies and buzzing production, but they lack a certain familiarity and truth.

Equally lacking is first single ‘Shake it Off’ which is so damn catchy it tries to convince you it’s half decent, but don’t let it fool you. Think back to the first time you heard it, and the disappointment you felt. The cheap and clichéd chorus may get stuck in your brain but it won’t make you smile like ‘We Are Never Getting Back Together’ did. It’s also a little too self aware for my liking, which is completely the opposite of what I usually like about Taylor. She’s somebody who gets so caught up in a feeling that she can’t see straight, and certainly can’t tell when she’s being melodramatic, soppy, embarrassing or repetitive. ‘Shake It Off’ is addressed to the haters, and it draws you out of the moment, and forces you to reconcile with the uncomfortable truth of what pop music really involves in 2014; i.e, a whole lot of press battles, social networking, blogging, vlogging, you tube commenting and basically all the stuff I find vaguely repulsive about the modern industry.

For me the album works best when Taylor sticks to what she‘s done well in the past. ‘Out of the Woods’ is one of the more successful songs; its rooted in verses that have the familiar autobiographical details with the ring of truth before reverting to a simple and sticky refrain (for those of you who use Taylor Swift songs as a who who of her boyfriends, this one is supposedly about a certain Harry Styles). ‘Stay’ is excellent; it marries finely detailed lyrics with an acrobatic chorus, while ‘I Wish’ is classic Taylor Swift in a new sparkly 80s style outfit.

For the most part the change in sound works better than the sometimes shift of lyrical focus. I still don’t buy in to Taylor Swift as some kind of Katy Perry-alike, nor does anyone with a right-mind desire such a thing, but the change isn’t a drastic one and it’s pulled off with aplomb by musical wizards Max Martin and Shellback. But half the reason ‘We are Never Getting Back Together’, ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ and ‘22’ stood out is that they were bright and modern electro-pop songs in a field of more traditional country-pop. Here they’ve tried to replicate those songs 13 times over and so nothing really stands out. In fact nothing comes close to matching either of those three songs.

The lack of a killer single aside, overall, ‘1989’ is a successful record.; it‘s easy to listen to, often great fun, and it‘s commendably ambitious. Ultimately the obvious flaws are easy to look past because Taylor Swift is the most human superstar we have and humans make mistakes in the quest for better things. What’s important is that she’s a determined pop-star, and an enthusiastic musical explorer. Her vision of New York may be clichéd, two-dimensional and unrealistic but the things it represents to her are righteous goals – freedom, opportunity and adventure. ‘1989’ is an important stop on that journey.


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