On ‘1989’’s opening track ‘Welcome To New York’, Taylor Swift sings of “searching for a sound we hadn’t heard before”. To many of her younger fans this albums 80sisms — more subtle, it turns out, than initially hinted — might well be a fresh sound, but Taylor Swift has cultivated and earned a fanbase that extends far beyond teenagers. ‘1989’’s sound will not represent an unheard musical palette for the over-35s who actually lived through it, or those in their twenties who’ve already been through one 80s revival. Whatever the frame of reference, a huge proportion of this album situates itself outside the sounds that dominate Top 40 radio on either side of the Atlantic, just as Taylor has nurtured a popstar persona that contrasts with the public images put forward by most of her peers.
Sonic landscape aside, the vital element in the brilliance of ‘1989’ is that the songwriting is of a phenomenally high standard. As well as being expertly written the majority of these songs are also skilfully structured — ‘1989’ is an album of great post-choruses and great middle eights accompanying the expected barrage of extraordinary choruses. Repetition is used sparingly, repetition is used knowingly, repetition is used to great effect. ‘1989’ is the sound of a popstar whose powers are scaling new heights finding the perfect executive producer in the shape of Max Martin, whose formidable talents are going at full throttle on a number of these songs. Ultimately, there’s a clarity of vision that’s virtually unrivalled in the current pop scene.
Fans of Taylor’s earlier work complain that this former country singer (was she ever, really, an actual country singer?) now makes electronic pop music ‘like everybody else’. The truth is, nobody else is making electronic pop music quite like this.
There are incredibly few artists who could carry off at least three quarters of this album. Ironically, given the presence of much-discussed beef bonanza ‘Bad Blood’, one of the few albums on which some of these songs would fit is Katy Perry’s ‘Prism’, an album that flirted with full-on pensivepop via songs like ‘Double Rainbow’, but bottled it and found it necessary to counteract that elegant sophistication with too many tracks like ‘Birthday’ and ‘This Is How We Do’. ‘1989’ isn’t full-on pensivepop either — ‘Bad Blood’ and ‘Shake It Off’ stand out a mile — but it still feels like a body of work in the same way classic Madonna albums always did.
The supposed 80s sound, by the way, is a slight red herring — there are references to the likes of OMD but Taylor hasn’t exactly stormed along with an album that sounds like T’Pau and Bucks Fizz. Still, the synths soar, the drum machines patter along and the powerful melodies are old-fashioned in the best possible way at a point in pop history when traditional songwriting has, largely, been barged aside by tracks built around hooks and little else.
In any case the 80s references that do underpin the album never overwhelm: this isn’t pastiche, songs such as ‘I Know Places’ and ‘I Wish You Would’ sound really fresh, and there’s a strong influence of Joel Little’s work with Lorde on the likes of ‘Blank Space’ and ‘Bad Blood’.
The edges of that Lorde sound are smoothed off, just as ‘Out Of The Woods’ feels like Chvrches fed through the pop machine. But Taylor Swift is in the business is making Actual Pop, and smoothed edges come with the territory. Actual Pop is a metagenre whose gravitational pull reels in everything from orbiting genres and does whatever the hell it likes with the raw materials. That is why it’s amazing. Critics might identify the resulting music as a watered down sound. Actually — if we’re going to run with the watered down idea and situate this whole metaphor in the kitchen — it’s a reduced down sound. To put it another way, it’s pop stock.
The base ingredient for most pop from the last seventy years is Stuff About Love. Stuff About Love is simply the default lyrical setting for most chart music. Obviously there are hits that are all about going out and dancing around on a table, and there are hits about how amazing the singer is at everything they do or how the haters are going to hate, and you’ll occasionally find hits that completely bash down all the boundaries and discuss something totally different. But Stuff About Love is what pop is all about. For this reason — because almost everyone sings about love, and has done for the best part of the century — finding a new way to talk about it is the Holy Grail of pop songwriting. It’s tough, but there are several moments on ‘1989’ when Taylor completely hits the spot. ‘Out Of The Woods’ is just one song that feels like it innovates in this area, or at least takes a look at love from a new perspective.
Equally the desolate and jarring ‘Clean’ takes a brutal look at the part of a relationship where everything’s gone tits up. “The drought was the very worst,” Taylor sings, “when the flowers that we’d grown together died of thirst … The rain came pouring down, I punched a hole in the roof, let the flood carry away all my pictures of you … When I was drowning that’s when I could finally breathe.” The song wrings dry the dead horse of mixed metaphor by adding that the cleanliness felt in the wake of this watery scenario is a bit like being clean following a spell in rehab (“ten months sober, ten months older, now that I’m clean, I’m not gonna risk it”) but the song’s a belter nonetheless.
The album’s centrepiece — to these ears, anyway — is ‘Style’, a track for which iTunes’ single song repeat function could well have been invented. There’s a great detail in the middle eight when Taylor sings “I heard that you’ve been out with some other girl”, then admits, “I’ve been there too a few times”. As jolting middle eight turnarounds go, this is a plot twist right up there with The Human League’s ‘Human’.
Stuff About Love often feels so bland because lyricists dilute and blur their experiences in an attempt to make them relatable to every listener. Actually, as Taylor Swift proves on ‘1989’, the best way to conjure the true feeling of love in the listener’s mind is to describe one’s own experience of romance in such specific terms that it reminds the listener of their own private moments. This is why lines like “we moved the furniture so we could dance” on ‘Out Of The Woods’ and “it’s 2am in your car” work so well.
Studies of lying show that when telling a lie, most people are tempted to add a huge amount of detail to their stories; they believe that the more detail they add, the more believable their stories will be. ‘1989’ does not feel dishonest, but you could argue that the suggested extent of this album’s intimacy is an illusion of sorts, or at least an example of sleight of hand.
In media training, artists are often advised that the best way to avoid difficult personal questions is to pre-emptively offer up personal information. Divulging personal information whose boundaries you’ve defined allows the interviewer or reader to feel like their thirst for hot gossip has been quenched, so they move away to a different area. In order to do this effectively you must compartmentalise your personal life into areas that seem off-limits and those that actually are off-limits. And that in a sense — probably instinctively, rather than as the result of media training — is what we have with Taylor Swift. You end ‘1989’ feeling like you know what it’s like to be in a relationship with Taylor Swift, and maybe one or two other popstars to boot. In fact, we know none of the ‘interesting’ stuff — all that nonsense that would crash the servers of most gossip websites. But we feel like we know enough.
Nowhere is this perceived intimacy as well-honed as in ‘I Know Places’, a song about hunters and foxes, which promises “I know places we won’t be found”. Once ensconced in these places, the couple in the song will leave the hunters “chasing the their tails trying to track us down”. On first listen this seems to be a song about photographers, but given the circumstances of the relationships covered by this album the song could just as easily be about attempts to escape the glare of two different sets of fans.
In 2014 fans are a paparazzi swarm in their own right; Taylor herself recently wrote that these days fans just want pictures instead of autographs. But then nobody else understands 21st Century pop fame the way Taylor does, or if they do, they don’t demonstrate that understanding like Taylor does. The ‘Shake It Off’ video was either too clever for its own good or too dumb for its own good, or perhaps a combination of the two. Either way it misfired, but at its heart it was a shrewd way of Taylor recognising — then owning — the pop space she occupies.
Does she occupy that space by accident? Does she bollocks. Nothing about this album or Taylor’s career seems left to chance. That’s not to say this album feels stilted. On the contrary, she seems to have fun with the space she’s in. In ‘Blank Space’ — as in the opening lines of ‘Shake It Off’ — she plays on the way she’s caricatured. With lines like “hey, let’s be friends, I can’t wait to see how this one ends”, “oh my God, look at that face, you look like my next mistake” and “I’ve got a blank space baby, and I’ll write your name” she seems to be singing from the perspective of the woman she’s made out to be, satirising the snark cloud that hovers above her public image.
That caricature is one she might not encourage, but she certainly does little to dispel it. Naturally, that’s to her own advantage — all fame is about caricature, and just like she’s managed the private details she wants the world to know, Taylor’s effectively defines her own caricature, nominating the parts of her personality she permits to be exaggerated.
Waffle aside, there are loads of top tunes here. ’1989’ feels effortlessly enchanting, and of course, it’s not effortless at all — this is a laser-guided pop — but there’s a feeling of relaxed charm to most of these songs, and it’s a feeling many artists find hard to engineer. Taylor pulls it off. This is not a perfect album, but it does contain enough perfect songs (three) plus enough 9/10s (three) and few enough sub‑5/10s (none) to make it the best album of the 2014, not to mention the best of Taylor’s career.
Problems with this review
1. Where are the jokes? This is too serious for an album that in parts feels so joyful. There could at least be a GIF.
2. Ineffective in terms of describing what the songs actually sound like. ‘A bit 80s’ and ‘pensive’ doesn’t really cover it.
3. Too bogged down in half-baked ‘grand’ theories about pop.
4. Some of the lyrics are probably slightly wrong.
6. It doesn’t even mention what Taylor’s voice sounds like.
7. Surely all reviews based on 1.4 listens run the risk of being unreliable.
8. The writer probably missed an explosive lyric that blows the lid off pop.
9. There’s too much repetition of points about Taylor doing things on purpose rather than by accident.
19. You’re likely to be better off with Sam Lansky’s review for TIME, or Alexis Petridis’ review in The Guardian, both of which probably deal with most of these problems and, undoubtedly, do so with considerable flair.