Review Summary: Nu-Disneyland billionaire pop will eat you all
I can remember the precise moment in 2014 that my social media feed blew up like a can of Coke in the paws of a ratty seven-year-old, informing me that Taylor Swift had graduated from a peppy teen idol widely viewed a singles artist to a celebrity auteur whose entire records were now prescribed as mandatory consumption by people with whom I'd never previously exchanged a word about music in my life. 1989
changed everything for Swift, blowing out all Nashville's claims on her through the back door in a barrage of bubbly hooks that opened the floodgates to '80s revivalism and 'poptimism' as a critical ethos, all while retaining a slick edge that belonged far more to the modern zeitgeist than retro pastiche. It's a great record – it sounded good
when it dropped, and, shock of all horrors, it still sounds good now.
Flash forward one decade and one infamous masters dispute later, and 1989 (Taylor's Version)
has emerged as an entirely different, somewhat more token pop milestone. Besides the number of sales and streaming records it has reportedly smashed, the most significant thing it represents on its own terms is a hardly-necessary reminder of the original's star value, but on a broader, more meaningful level, it represents a cautionary lesson for all artists to prioritise ownership of their work (which has already had a marked industry impact) and the relentless lengths Swift will go to advance her own capital (a familiar story for anyone who remembers her notorious trademarking spree of 1989
's most quotidian taglines in 2015).
Both of these things are all well and good, but appraising either of them in terms of the product itself is a stretch: as Laura Snapes baldly observed in her review of Speak Now (Taylor's Version)
for the Guardian, both the original and its pyrotechnic release cycle are far too recent landmarks in pop history to demand this kind of revisitation so soon, and sure enough, 1989 (Taylor's Version)
is the project's most redundant offering thus far. It boasts nothing like the inspirational trip down memory lane that supported Fearless (Taylor's Version)
, or the redemption arc that brought Red (Taylor's Version)
's coming-of-age tangle the critical acclaim that had initially evaded it; its tracks are largely dutiful recreations rather than bold reimaginings, the then-and-now gap between the original is too narrow to provide the insight or revelation of its predecessors (especially given how closely Swift sticks to her original vocal style).
In this case the Taylor's Version
label also comes with an ominously empty seat once occupied by the producer most responsible for the original's irresistible gloss: the absence of Swedish hit machine Max Martin has already proved a glaring Achilles heel on Red (Taylor's Version)
, as that record's pop hits, once deliciously crass, found themselves outright neutered by comparison to his originals, and the biggest takeaway to be had on 1989 (Taylor's Version)
is the work done by returning Swift collaborator Christopher Rowe in filling his shoes. Tasked with the majority of the original tracklist, Rowe puts in a commendable shift, largely restoring the bouncy, polished snappiness that Martin brought in such spades to the entire run of tracks from "Blank Space" to "How You Get The Girl". It's not a complete knockout – "Blank Space" compresses its razor-taut backing instrumental a few fatal increments less than the original, obstructing the momentum of Swift's vocal performance to somewhat underwhelming effect as such, while the giddy heights of the "New Romantics"' chorus are now merely gaudy and blown out – but he makes up for this with the occasional surprise triumph. "All You Had To Do Was Stay" sounds particularly massive and might just have trumped the original for sheer ecstasy, while "Style" somehow sounds slicker than ever. Elsewhere in the mixing booth, Jack Antonoff goes some way to redeeming himself for last year's synth-flop Midnights
with his watertight restaging of "Out Of The Woods" and "I Wish You Would", while the rest of the tracklist returns its original production teams to similar effect. As far as recreating those lavish heights of polish goes, 1989 (Taylor's Version)
by and large overcomes its personnel issue, rebooting its original aesthetic with conviction.
The rest of the record follows a similar pattern of give-and-take in how it squares against the original. Some tracks make notable improvements – a subtle lift on "This Love"'s gorgeous arrangement boosts one of Swift's most forgettable ballads to a late tracklist highlight, while the new version of "Clean" emphasises producer Imogen Heap's vocal offerings so resplendently that it's a crime she doesn't receive a feature credit – yet others are misplaced in their adjustments. Perhaps the biggest casualty here is the deluxe-edition track "You Are In Love", for my money the most underappreciated track in Swift's whole discography. Once sublimely devoted to the understated facets of her choicest vocalisations to an extent we wouldn't hear again until Folklore
's secret highlight "epiphany", the re-recording suffers from Antonoff overstating his ascending synth arpeggios in the chorus, walking headlong into the '80s kitsch that this album once craftily tiptoed around and robbing Swift's vocal of its original delicacy. The song's lull/rush relation with the burgeoning "New Romantics" suffers accordingly, though the latter track no longer bears the burden of dishing out a final climax for the extended tracklist. Instead, we are treated to a now-customary flurry of new-old songs from the 'Vault'. Among these, "Say Don't Go" stands out as Swift's most intrepid journey thus far into the '80s cheese cave, taking her commitment beyond mere synthpop and all the way to New Age in a gleeful series of Enya-esque backing vocals and grandiose pizzicato arpeggios, while "Is It Over Now?" soaks up the spotlight with a particularly lurid post-relationship narrative. However, these tracks boast more commonalities than distinctions, blurring together for their dutiful exhibition of standard Swift tropes (romantic headrush, knives twisted, and loves outgrown) and dishing out a victory lap mellow enough that their lack of major revelations hardly feels like a sore point.
Beyond this respectable string of archival B-sides, 1989 (Taylor's Version)
is a faithful enough retread to play as moot from any perspective beside Swift's profit margins and her wider gesticulation against the industry. The more thought I've put into comparisons between the two albums, the less invested I've become over which deserves to be viewed as 'definitive'. The original 1989
probably gets the edge for housing superior versions of "Blank Space" and "You Are In Love", yet it, rather than any recent adjustments, is also the source of all the chief flaws that run through Taylor's Version
: this album has always had a ceiling imposed on it by the odd duff chorus (no-one
is going to tell me that "Bad Blood" has aged remotely well, while even in 2014, "How You Get The Girl"'s aggravating cheerleader schtick arrived dead on the scene from Everest-tier blood sugar levels and all the wrong hairbrush antics), a maximalist aesthetic slightly too homogenous not to droop from exhilaration to exhaustion across a 50-minute tracklist (pour another one out for the perfect refresher "You Are In Love" once offered), and Swift's ongoing presumption that relationship banalities somehow become more compelling the more fixatedly one explores them. As such, while 1989
was a defining moment for the Western mainstream, it never quite kept up with the likes of Emotion
, St. Vincent
or even Charli
when it comes to raising the bar on '10s pop.
All of these points are in crisper focus than ever, courtesy of this shiny new album that technically offers more than ever but also sounds minutely worse than before. Great. The optics of vendetta in the Taylor's Version
project are at this point far less significant than the opportunity it's given her to capitalise on her cultural stranglehold. Spin it whichever way you like, it all stems from the same enterprise: a crafty superstar pulling the strings of arguably the greatest sentimentalist soft power empire since Disney, backed up by a choice set of bangers and the only fanbase in the West that approximates the militaristic awfulness associated with K-pop factions. Treasure her, or
*despondent shrug of gratitude*