Taylor Swift – 1989
A lot of the buzz leading up to Taylor Swift’s fifth album, 1989, surrounded her claim that it was a final big leap from country to pop. In reality, this sounds like a more dramatic shift than it is, since she already made that jump with her last record, Red, which forwent the usual twang for dabbles in indie pop, stadium rock and dubstep drops. The difference here, then, is more in tone. While Red was warm and playful, with a few country-lite ballads to fill in the gaps between the big singles, 1989 is all steely surfaces and icy beats, a modern pop record through and through, where feel and mood sometimes trump song. Normally, this would be a significant, even fatal, error judgement for an artist like Swift, who made her name on charming earnestness and an endearing clumsiness and relatability. There needs to be a warmth then, something the distant, robotic production of dance-pop rarely offers, in order for her approach to land effectively. And at its worst, some of that distance does harm 1989, like, say, the catchy but generic opener “Welcome To New York,” which, as agreeable as it is, sounds like anyone could have made it, when, love ’em or hate ’em, Taylor’s songs are usually unmistakably hers.
But savvy star that she is, Swift already knew all this, so she pivoted 1989 in a direction that takes advantage of the style, enlisting producers to assist her in making an album full of bangers—nearly every song here is a potential single, and only “This Love” and “Clean” land into ballad territory. It helps even more that she leans into some of the darker shades of her music, bringing the previous subtext of her heartbroken confessions to the fore, even as the hooks keep on coming. Paranoia and obsession tremble throughout 1989, keeping her and her exes up at night, lingering after lost loves and sabotaging new relationships, all befitting the perspective of a woman whose dating life is constantly the subject of public scrutiny. “Style,” for instance, is all bouncy singalong and James Dean references, but is premised on a toxic, misguided relationship of two people who pretend they’re meant to be together. Elsewhere, “Wildest Dreams” finds Swift borrowing Lana Del Rey’s affected disaffection and doomed romanticism, but she cuts the pretension in half so it’s an easier sell; “I Know Places” goes as far as to deride the paparazzi and public as “hunters” and “vultures,” while she imagines an escape route out. Even the closing “Clean” (with production by Imogen Heap, nice to see you), which is ostensibly about getting over someone whose attraction has plagued you for years, uses the language of addiction (“Now that I’m clean, I’m never gonna risk it”) and sounds unsettled and unsure, far from the great exhale her words seem to promise. And though “Welcome To New York” and the incredible, buoyant first single “Shake It Off” try to deflect the demons, the overwhelming impression the album leaves is one of confusion and uncertainty.
If this sounds oppressively, laughably dark, well, it’s all relative—this is still a Taylor Swift album. With the likes of blockbuster pop moguls Max Martin and Ryan Tedder behind the boards, this is immaculately candied pop, spit-shined within an inch of its life, so it never sounds too glum, and even if Swift’s lyrics suggest darkness and dysfunction, her words aren’t abrasive in and of themselves. (Case in point: this is an album that rhymes “fella over there” with “hella good hair.”) It all serves to create one of Swift’s best and most cohesive records yet, and one of the year’s finest pop records, one that goes down so easily that it makes it easy to overlook its considerable craft. The production keeps things moving even when Swift’s lyric and songwriting slip, and her words help inject some messy humanity back into the wintry layers of programming. It’s hard to say where she’ll move next, but that’s the thrilling feeling that comes with an artist in her prime. And since, as of this post, 1989 has positioned her as the only artist ever in the SoundScan-era to have three albums sell over a million records in a single week, I’d say that Taylor is certainly in her prime.
Taylor Swift – Red
You don’t even have to listen to Red to know that Taylor Swift is trying something new here—just look at the cover. Her name isn’t handwritten. Her face is obscured in shadow. She has bangs. All this screams that the 22-year-old Swift wants to be taken more seriously, and after her dear-diary breakup songs pigeonholed her as an eternal teenager, who could blame her? But as the lead single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” indicates, Swift isn’t ready to give up her bread and butter. Like her other records, Red is mainly packed with songs about regret, heartache and puppy love, her lyrics jumping between poignant, endearingly clumsy and just plain awkward.
Instead, what sets Red apart is how she finally makes the great leap from country to pop, successfully making the crossover like no one since Shania Twain. It’s something Swift was inching closer and closer to with each successive record, but what’s surprising is the extent to which she embraces new styles. She tries a little bit of everything, collaborating with Britney producer Max Martin for her forays into dance-pop (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “22”) and faux-dubstep flourishes (“I Knew You Were Trouble”); she takes stabs at quirky indie pop (“Stay Stay Stay”) and melancholy, dreamy folk (“Sad Beautiful Tragic”), and finds the time to duet with Ed Sheeran and Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody. Meanwhile, she draws on U2’s majestic stadium rock on the magnificent opener “State Of Grace,” where she shows a greater sense of dynamics than ever before.
But for all the musical adventurism, it’s still Swift who takes center stage, and she commits fully to her eclecticism in both her songwriting and performances. Other then the occasional banjo or lovelorn ballad, the only thing remotely “country” about Red is that she still lays all her sentiments on the surface, which bodes well for when she mines new lyrical territory like on the carefree yet conflicted “22” and the borderline paranoid “The Lucky One,” where she begins to doubt that there’s a happy ending to her Cinderella story. Since Red has no real musical center, it can sometimes come off as overlong or disjointed, since Swift doesn’t seem sure which direction she wants to head in. Yet even if it’s a transitional album, it’s an often superb one, catchy and captivating in equal measure. And if nothing else, that means that Swift is not only maturing as a person but maturing as an artist.