Album Review: Taylor Swift’s Pop Curveball Pays Off With ‘1989’
Any Nashville insider will tell you that Taylor Swift started breaking up with country music long before she first stepped out with hitmakers Max Martin and Shellback for three pop-leaning songs on 2012's blockbuster Red. But if her new single, "Shake It Off," was the official breakup letter, 1989 is the coming-out party, because it makes Red sound like Reba McEntire. Executive-produced by Swift and Martin, two of the all-time biggest hitmakers, the LP could have been an overstuffed Frankenstein of battling ideas. But instead it's Swift's best work -- a sophisticated pop tour de force that deserves to be as popular commercially as with Robyn-worshipping blog--gers; an album that finds Swift meeting Katy and Miley and Pink on their home turf and staring them down.
What's so different? Plenty. Sonically, 1989 is far more electronic than her previous work, driven by Martin's trademark drum programming and synthesizers, pulsating bass and processed backing vocals. The guitars, when they're there at all, deliver mostly texture; an acoustic is audible on just one song. The mandolins and violins were left back in Nashville, and there might not be a single live drum on the album.
The songwriting is still unmistakably Swift, with her polysyllabic melodies and playful/-provocative lyrics. But Martin and other key collaborators (including Shellback, Ryan Tedder and fun.'s Jack Antonoff) have helped hone her songs, which are more seasoned and subtle, less bubbly and bratty, than in the past.
The self-referential change-of-scenery theme is set with the opening "Welcome to New York." Its new-wave hook and innocent lyrics -- "The lights are so bright, but they never blind me" -- make it the ideal anthem for an Anne Hathaway film, or any 24-year-old moving to the big city, as Swift recently has (albeit into a $20 million Tribeca penthouse).
From there, in signature Swift style, it's almost all love -- or at least relationship-based -- songs. Swift says she has hardly dated since splitting with One Direction's Harry Styles early in 2013, and the songs' musical styles follow the character types she plays on the album: train wreck waiting to happen ("Blank Space"), committed partner ("I Know Places," "This Love"), penitent breaker-upper ("I Wish You Would"), spurned break-upee ("All You Had to Do Was Stay"). Lyrical references to him are all over the album: There are several vehicular-mishap analogies (the pair were in a snowmobile accident in 2013) and even a song called "Style." But Swift has said the LP's most bitter song, "Bad Blood," a simplistic anthem of betrayal that sounds reminiscent of Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl," is directed not at an ex-lover but a shade-throwing female peer (consensus points to Katy Perry).
Surprisingly, the famous figure who gets the most elaborate attention is Lana Del Rey: Swift flat-out mimics her on "Wildest Dreams," flitting between a fluttery soprano and deadpan alto, flipping lyrics so Lana -- "His hands are in my hair, his clothes are in my room" -- that it's hard to tell if the song is homage or parody.
Swift saves the most unexpected pairing for the last, show-stopping cut on the album's standard edition (the Target version includes three bonus tracks, along with fascinating work-in-progress phone recordings of three songs). "Clean" is an aching, bittersweet team-up with esoteric British alt-popper Imogen Heap where Swift surrenders more to her collaborator than on any other song on the album. Its melody has more air and fewer syllables, and Heap's influence is obvious in the warm electronic setting and the lyrics, heavy on metaphors of drowning and addiction, and lines like "You're still all over me like a wine-stained dress I can't wear anymore." Swift's growing up, alright.
A clean break with the core audience is a risky move for any artist: At worst, it's like ill-advised plastic surgery, a blandifying of the distinctive qualities and quirks that made the person interesting in the first place. But Swift avoided that fate entirely with this album, making her rare ability to write for multiple audiences and ages even more universal. With 1989, she expertly sets up the next chapter of what is now even more likely to be a very long career.
This article first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of Billboard.