Taylor Swift dropped her much-hyped fifth album, 1989, today, and as one of the millions who professes himself a fan of Tay-Tay, I’ve already made a few listen-throughs. I wanted to share my thoughts here.
Let’s start by going back two years. Taylor’s fourth album, Red, put me off a bit when I first heard it. I had two major complaints: First, the album is paced weird; The front is heavy with dance-pop singles, while the back is dense with sluggish ballads and midtempo numbers. Second, I found her collaborations with Max Martin — and their massive success and popularity — somewhat troubling. Those three songs are a mixed bag. “I Knew You Were Trouble” is pretty great, “22” is catchy but dumb, and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is intensely bad. More than the quality of those three songs, my concern was that her work with a mega-producer was signaling that Taylor had come to care more about being a beloved icon than developing into a great singer-songwriter full of personality.
My former concern with the album, the pacing, has faded with time. The ballads are mostly quite good, standing up to repeated listens better than some of the upbeat numbers (though the listless stretch from tracks 10-12 still feels interminable). The jarring flips back and forth between dopey (“22”) and sublime (“All Too Well”) bothers me less now that I know what to expect.
My latter concern — Taylor’s flirtation with catchy but lifeless dance-pop — only grew as details about 1989 leaked. She doubled her number of collaborations with Martin. Swift has only one solo writing credit on the entire album, “This Love.” Compare that to her third album, 2010’s Speak Now, where she has sole writing credit for all fourteen songs.
When “Shake It Off” was released as an early promo single for 1989, I began to fear that the album would play like a Katy Perry album, bouncy and fun but disposable. Later pre-release tracks “Out of the Woods” and “Welcome to New York” gave me mixed messages, but both indicated a pop direction.
It turns out I was right to expect a new sound for Taylor, but my specific fears were off base. 1989 is not the disposable drivel it could have been, but it has left a bad taste in my mouth after a couple listens.
The opening track name-drops the Big Apple, and the entire album has a shiny, urban feel to it. The sound of the album makes me think of glass skyscrpaers and marble statues… by which I mean, the album is impressive but cold. The album feels distant: not in an impersonal, bubblegum way but in a glossy, almost paranoid way. The nostalgic longing that was palpable in tracks like “I Almost Do” — let alone the pure romantic magic of songs like “Enchanted” and “Fearless” — is largely gone in favor of an icy, synth-heavy timbre. (And, in case this wasn’t clear, any relationship Taylor’s music had with “country” is long gone.)
The year in the title of the album is reference to not only Taylor’s year of birth, but the synth-heavy era of music that inspired the album’s sound (Fine Young Cannibals, Madonna, Prince, MJ, etc.). I’ve often said that the late ’80s and early ’90s are the closest we’ve ever had to a wasteland of great, iconic pop. Sure, there was the occasional lightning bolt — “Like a Prayer,” cited by Swift as a central inspiration, comes to mind — but by and large the music from that time leaves me feeling detached. Thus, it’s little surprise the album has left me cold.
But as much as the album’s style has detectable throwback influences, it still feels extremely modern. The most obvious comparison is Lorde: the looming synths and echoing drum machines feel ripped directly from Pure Heroine. The sound also shares a bunch of DNA with similarly retro/modern acts Lana Del Rey, CHVRCHES, and Haim (hit up “The Wire” if you haven’t). I also assume that Taylor was listening to recent strong female acts like Grimes, Robyn, and tUnE-yArDs as she put these tracks together.
The compositions themselves are varied. Several tracks feel over-repetitive and lazy (“Out of the Woods”) while a few others feel like a traditional Swifty track in a new soundscape (“I Wish You Would”). As is always the case with Taylor, her lyrics generally work when they’re reflective or submerged in emotion, but fall flat when trying to be fun or observational (with “Welcome to New York” a particularly bland lowlight). Late ’80s paranoia, a la Jacko, creeps in on the fringes, most obviously in “I Know Places” and “Bad Blood” — the latter supposedly about a feud with Katy Perry
What’s impressive (but doesn’t much affect the album’s enjoyability) is the tonal flow of the album: it’s narrower and more focused. You can tell Taylor and her team really thought through progression and pacing of these tracks, which is in stark contrast to Red. Her album liner notes also present the album as a continuous story which, again, is a cool idea but doesn’t change the icy, shimmering quality that has distracted me thus far.
I am optimistic I’ll come to enjoy the album a bit more in time once I get used to the sound and really start to enjoy the hooks and writing behind the gleam. A few tracks are already there for me — “How You Get the Girl” is sure to be a hit single, “Wildest Dreams” is blissful — but my immediate response to songs like “Style” and “Clean” is that Taylor is trying too hard to evolve her sound, failing to make use of her strengths of immediacy and warmth. In finding “pop” she lost herself, just as I worried.
As a point of contrast, my response to the even more brazen and distant 808 and Heartbreaks was positive, commending Kanye for bringing his sound in bold new directions. But a) Kanye is a genius with sounds, b) Kanye’s album was buoyed by instant-classic tracks that are obviously among his best, and c) Kanye’s icy beats had an obvious emotional justification. You can’t say any of those three about Taylor and 1989.
As it stands, Taylor’s latest is a curiosity, bloated with glossy non-dance beats and strange, Lorde-esque vocal lines. There’s obvious craft here and some compelling writing so that I can’t call it a disaster, but it’s dull enough to bore me a bit. Her consummate craft and understanding of pop structure is present, but the feeling behind it isn’t. 1989 may prove to be a grower over time, but for now, it’s looking like Taylor’s first-ever lark.
First Impression Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)