Review Summary: Taylor Swift finally embraces what she was meant to do.
Taylor Swift’s balancing act between country and pop has been the subject of much scrutiny over the years. Some people even went as far as to say that she didn’t belong in the country music awards – a notion that became hard to disagree with by the time “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” hit the airwaves. From her self-titled debut up to the present day, a gradual evolution from country to all-out pop has been occurring, and all of the growing pains associated with it came to a head on 2012’s Red
. The problem with Red
was that it tried to keep feet in both camps, resulting in a predictably uneven listening experience. The forays into pop were a resounding success, but they were too few and far between to sustain Red
as a true “pop album.” Thankfully, that’s where 1989
comes in. Here, Taylor Swift finally embraces what she was meant to do…and she knocks it out of the park.
Make no mistake – this is the best album of Taylor Swift’s career. It’s an exciting prospect when you consider that she’s already reached that milestone twice, because at their respective times that’s exactly what Fearless
and Speak Now
were. However, 1989
is a complete reinvention of Swift’s empire. She easily could have dwelled in country-pop territory for another decade and sold millions of records, but her decision to start anew might end up launching her to even more stratospheric heights – something that is borderline unfathomable when you consider the ridiculous extent to which she is already celebrated. If you can imagine an album full of Swift’s best pop moments, free of the country influences that have routinely shackled her creative limits, then you’ll have a good idea of what 1989
is all about. This is as fresh and rejuvenated as Taylor Swift has ever sounded, and there isn’t a single moment on here that exists as a stale retread of hackneyed endeavors.
From the opening minute of “Welcome to New York”, it’s clear that 1989
is meant to be huge. Everything about the opener is designed to draw you in, with a chanted chorus that features one of the catchiest melodies on the album. “It’s a new soundtrack, I could dance to this beat forever more” basically serves as a 1989
mission statement, and it’s undeniably fun as well. One slyly noted verse that is sure to go unnoticed – “You can want who you want – boys and boys and girls and girls” hints at an equal rights statement; something we’re not used to hearing from the typically neutral, soft-spoken songstress. Although “Welcome to New York” has already been criticized by the likes of El-P, it’s actually quite the well rounded pop song – and it proves that underneath all of the boldness and bombast, Swift still maintains the candid style of lyricism that made fans fall in love with her in the first place. On 1989
it’s as if the messages that have always been close to her heart have gone from the tattered pages of her journal to a Hollywood movie screen. She seems to make the transition without even blinking - or as Taylor pens it on her opening track: “the lights are so bright but they never blind me.” Swift was meant for the spotlight, and her ability to adapt seamlessly without altering her personality is what makes 1989
every bit as endearing as the songs she wrote during her stint as a quaint country artist.
What truly puts Swift’s fifth full-length in its own class is the combination of brilliant songwriting and incredible production. Those two strengths come together throughout 1989
, but no track showcases it better than “Out of the Woods.” A spectacular blend of soaring melodies, infectious repetition, and an electronic undercurrent make it a rewarding (if CHVRCHES reminiscent) listen, but what lends it character is the sentiment that Swift’s vocals inject into it. Oftentimes, singers (especially of the mainstream variety) simply go through the motions when it comes to their vocal duties. They are trying to hit notes instead of connect
with their listeners. But for Taylor, there’s a sense of urgency in in her voice that sets up the atmosphere for poignancy. Combine that with her unique brand of lyrics, such as “the monsters turned out to be just trees, when the sun came up you were looking at me”, and you have a shimmering example of bona fide emotion. “Wildest Dreams” serves as another impassioned piece, albeit with more of a lusting component: “No one has to know what we do. His hands are in my hair, his clothes are in my room…this is getting good now. He’s so tall and handsome as hell, he’s so bad but he does it so well.” There’s a distinct (and already highly discussed) Lana Del Rey vibe to it, but Swift pulls it off just like she does most of the other influences present on the album. Even though “Out of the Woods” feels like
a CHVRCHES song and “Wildest Dreams” feels like
a Del Rey song, all it really proves is that Swift is capable of taking the contemporary influences around her and molding them into something impressively original.
In fact, originality is kind of the not-so-subtle theme of 1989
. For starters, the album is named after the year she was born. Beyond that and the typical personalized tales of love and heartache, there’s a self-awareness here that was never present on any her prior outings. The lead single and radio mainstay “Shake It Off” is the
case in point, in which she comments on the negative publicity surrounding her dating life and then makes complete light of it both lyrically and in her music video. A lesser person would grow upset, perhaps even angry, over the criticism – and there may have been a time where Swift was exactly both of those things – but if nothing else the “haters gonna hate” attitude combined with the self-mocking video antics make it the ultimate “screw you” to her hecklers. It also proves that Taylor Swift has not only vied for the star-studded pop life, but that she has grown into the large shoes required to walk that path. She’s perfectly capable of accepting criticism now, knowing full well that she can’t please everyone. Swift is just happy being herself, and it translates to her music in a way that projects self-confidence and encourages her listeners to do the same.
illustrates everything that Taylor Swift is about now, as an adult who has matured rather noticeably since writing fairytales like “Love Story.” Musically, it’s about her not being afraid to take risks, and finally pursuing that pop identity that has always remained partially hidden by her country girl veil. Emotionally it’s still primarily about relationships, sure, but it comes to us in a fashion that is much more down-to-earth. Perhaps most of all, though, 1989
is an album about being yourself – and it leads by example. Whether she’s poking fun at herself, touching on more risqué topics (“I got that good girl faith and a tight little skirt” will forever enshrine her as the poster girl of teases), or just going about her business singing about breakups because that’s what she wants to do
is an album that shows growth straight across the board. For all of these reasons – besides that it’s just a damn good pop album – Ms. Swift’s latest effort stands tall as her most creative and daring triumph yet.