Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Taylor Swift 1989 Review

In an interview promoting her new album, 1989, Taylor Swift said, “I know that I don't have the option of making music that sounds just like what I've done before. People will call me out on it. They'll see right through it. They'll see that I was lazy,” (source) 1989  is Swift's fifth studio album, but her "first pop record." Swift has been on the country and Billboard charts for years and has had singles playing on Top 40 radio since her second album, 2008's Fearless. So to claim that 1989 is her first pop record is a bit dubious, but it does have a new sound. 

The record is titled after Swift's birth year and is heavily inspired by 80s electro-synth pop music, power ballads, and anthems. Claiming that it is her first pop album also lets Swift off the hook a bit in terms of delivery. Expectations for a fifth album from an award-winning artist are high. Expectations for a debut album, or an album where an artist is trying out a new sound are much more reasonable and easier to meet, especially following something as critically aclaimed as 2012's Red

The album's first single, "Shake It Off" also contributed to relieving some of the pressure on Swift. Lyrics like "I never miss a beat/ I'm lightning on my feet/ and that's what they don't see" imply that some people just don't get Swift, and the chorus repeats, "The players gonna play...and the haters gonna hate...I shake it off," suggesting that any criticism towards Swift is less than legitimate because "haters gonna hate." I was unimpressed with the single at first but it grew on me and I think it fits well in the middle of the album, and the message of "I'm just gonna be me and f*ck the haters" seems immature blasting out of the radio, but in the context of the album fits in well and actually contributes to an overall impression of a more mature, wiser Swift.

Taylor Swift's music has always been highly personal and the album kicks off with a track called "Welcome to New York," about her move to New York City. She compares the vibe of her new city to a "new soundtrack" that she could dance to "forevermore," saying, "everybody here was someone else before/searching for a sound they hadn't heard before." The song is catchy and serves as a great opener for the album, introducing her new synth-heavy, autotuned sound, and also one of the major themes of the album: change. For me the song calls to mind the lyric "Someday I'll be living in a big old city" from 2010's "Mean," and reminds me right off the bat that Taylor has changed and grown up.

The rest of the album kind of blurs together in a combination of synths and indistinguishable vocals, meaning if I heard it out of context I wouldn't know it was a Taylor Swift song, which I guess is part of the idea. But there were a few tracks that stuck with me.

The high point of the album for me is the closing track, "Clean," which was co-written and co-produced by Imogen Heap. The lyrics of the song are absolutely beautiful and poetic, the music is quite subtle compared to the rest of the album, and Taylor's vocals are solid and don't sound overly manipulated. The song is about facing the pain after a break-up or losing someone you love. It's filled with metaphors like, "you're still all over me like a wine-stained dress I can't wear any more," but the central metaphor is letting the rain wash away the pain. It's an old cliche but beautifully executed here. 

My second favourite song carries some of the sass of "Shake It Off" but in my opinion is much more clever. Explaining her inspiration for the song "Blank Space", Swift said,"I had been thinking a lot about how the media has created this complex, fictionalized cartoon version of me, you know, this man-eating, jet-setting serial dater who reels them in, but scares them off because she’s clingy and needy; then she’s all dejected, so she goes into her lair and writes a song as a weapon."
"Blank Space" is written from that persona and the chorus boasts, "I've got a long list of ex-lovers/they'll tell you I'm insane/ but I've got a blank space baby *pen click*/ and I'll write your name." It's one of the catchier songs on the album and separates Swift from the angsty love ballads of her past, showing she doesn't take herself too seriously on this album.

I really enjoyed "Widest Dreams" which sounds just like a Lana Del Ray song, but sung by Swift. I enjoy Swift's voice more than Del Ray's so I was okay with it. The other track I like is the only one Swift wrote independently, "This Love." (All of Swift's other albums have more than one song written independently.) The melody of "This Love" actually sounds pretty similar to "Wildest Dreams" to me but the song takes Swift back to her roots more. It's a ballad and the instrumentation is simpler and features guitar. I can also hear influences of Imogen Heap on this song, which makes sense since the two collaborated on this record. 

Other than that, most of the songs are pretty forgettable. I've listened to the album multiple times and it's pleasing, it's entertaining, but it's not just hit after sing-along hit like the previous records.

That being said, I mentioned before that I think this album shows a more mature side of Swift. Fans of Swift will recognize lyrical callbacks to previous songs, showing growth, like the one I mentioned in "Mean"/"Welcome to New York" or the transition from "She wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts" from 2008's "You Belong With Me" to "I've got that good girl faith in a tight little skirt" on 1989's "Style." These subtle callbacks might seem meaningless or even like I'm reading too far into things but I don't think anything Swift does on a record is unintentional, and these lyrical callbacks tie into the album's main theme of change.

In the liner notes of the album, Swift writes to her fans, "I've told you my stories for years now. Some have been about coming of age. Some have been about coming undone. This is a story about coming into your own, and as a result...coming alive."

Everything on this album comes together to present the message Swift wants to give off right now -from experimenting in a new genre to the title of the album taking us back to where Swift comes from and reminding us how far she's come in her 25 years. 1989 is a polaroid of Swift's life and career at this moment in time. It is an ode to taking chances and making changes. It's not my favourite Taylor Swift album but I respect what she's trying to do. If you are a Swift fan, give the record a chance, and if you aren't, try it out because it might be a little different from what you expect.

"Isn't it wild and intriguing and beautiful to think that every day we are new?" - Foreward to 1989

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