1989 (Music, 2014)
Artist: Taylor Swift
Executive Producer: Max Martin
We’re in the midst of the Female Invasion. Alongside Lady Gaga, Sia, and Ellie Goulding, Taylor Swift has dominated the airways, quickly becoming one of the best selling artists of all time. But it’s not the numbers of these talented females that makes them worthy of praising. What is truly impressive is how they are artists in the most truest sense of the word, creating new sounding music while writing their own lyrics and playing their own instruments. In an era when pop musicians are created by studio assembly lines, it’s refreshing to see this talented gender shake up the stagnant genre. The Beatles would be proud.
I approached Taylor Swift’s latest outing with mixed curiosity. While I had heard her songs on the radio and seen her on TV, I was at best a distant admirer. I came from a rock background, and though I finally shed my inherent bias, I had never attempted to listen to one of this blond beauty’s albums. I have since purchased her oeuvre, but I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t preface this review by stating I approached 1989 with virginal ears. What I can say after listening to the album is that I’ve been missing out on the wonder kid, spending the last decade on an unhealthy obsession with Lady Gage (I plan to post a mega review of her discography and influence in pop music in the near future). The time has come that I correct this wrong.
What impressed me most about 1989 was not how well constructed it was, nor how re-listenable the songs were, but rather how well a full-fledged country artist had crossed the pond into the pop arena. It’s a truly Beatlesesque transformation. Swift’s vocals are sure here, confidently carrying the album to soaring heights. Add to this a stellar production that features a Moog synthesizer and electronic drum beats, as well as mature songwriting, and you have one hell of an album. I’ve been listening to it over and over in my car for about a month now. It’s that good. With this intimacy, I was compelled to write up a review.
Welcome to New York
The first track to this extremely repayable album kicks off with the bumming of synthesizers, which will be a recurring sound. It has a retro vibe that’s reminiscent of the 80s–no surprise considering the album’s title.
The song is based on Swift’s recent relocation to the Big Apple, but also signifies her new shift to pop music with lines such as “It’s a new soundtrack / Lights are so bright / But they never blind me”. New York is portrayed as a life changing place, where everyone is searching for new experiences. It’s been done before, but clichés be damned, the song is infectious.
Of course, this wouldn’t be possible without pop veteran Ryan Tedder, who is the best journeyman writer/producer around. His fingerprints are all over, with the song built on a synth melody backed by clap sounding drums. There’s a reverb on the vocals, with an added echo on the end rhymes–another repeated sound later on. “Welcome to New York” builds from the first verse to the second, as the latter gets louder in sound.
It’s a solid track that sets the tone both thematically as well as musically. While it’s one of the weaker entries, it’s a good sign that it’s still enjoyable and fun.
It’s songs like “Blank Space” that are the reason I love pop music so much. The track is sparse, stripped down to the bare essentials and devoid of the dreaded overproduction so prevalent today.
The opening sounds like the ringing of hand bells, accompanied by a snare hit. It feels new in its feeling of longing carried by its notable tone. From there the verse builds as bass drums are introduced. The chorus carries the beat from the verse with an added hum of the Moog synthesizer and what faintly sounds like strumming of an acoustic guitar. At the end of the chorus is a great use of dropping the instrumentation, with a click that sounds like a camera shutter. The instrumentation is repeated throughout except for the bridge, where the music drops out except for Swift’s vocals.
The first verse uses the rhyme scheme ABACBB which is immediately followed by ABABCDDD. The great thing about the poetry of modern lyrics is how they’re not absolutely married to form. They’re still classical in their use of rhyme, but modern in how their form. Verse one riffs on the bullshit media’s obsessions with Taylor’s love life. The lyrics are tongue in cheek and carry a maturity compared to Swift’s doe-eyed love songs from her country repertoire.
The chorus gets more serious, declaring the hopelessness of these flings, with lyrics such as “So it’s gonna be forever / Or it’s gonna go down in flames”. This is reinforced by the last line of the chorus, which states “But I got a blank space baby / And I’ll write your name”.
The second verse progresses the motif with phrases of “stolen kisses” and the guarantee that our narrator can “show you incredible things”. I love the virginal innocence of how Swift sings that line. What sound sounds sexual is played devoid of any innuendo.
From there we go back to the chorus, followed by the bridge, where Swift warns “Boys only like love if it’s torture”. I’m not sure I quite agree with the line. I’m male and I like my love smooth and easy, but of course, I’m not one of the boys that she’s probably singing about. A guy can wish.
“Style” is a throwback to the Miami Vice era of cruising down the freeways as the music blasts from the stereo. It opens with a driving synth guitar rhythm while a humming synth is introduced behind this riff, really enforcing the movement. This song could easily accompany the opening to the stylish 80s film American Gigolo.
Following the verse, we have a pre-chorus in which the humming synth drops out and piano chords play behind Swift’s sultry vocals. The chorus then brings back the driving synth. I appreciated the doubling of Swift’s vocals during the chorus as well. Again, as in “Blank Space”, she ends the chorus with shouting.
Lyrically, the first verse reflects this Miami Vice vibe, with lyrics such as “Long drive / Could end in burning flames of paradise”.
The chorus is a series of stereotypes, with the lines “James Dean / Daydream / Look in your eyes” and “Red lips / Classic / Thing that you like”. While they’re clichés, they’re used to great effect in painting a picture of youthful romance, with the song even justifying their use with the line “We never go out of style”.
Verse two continues this theme of driving, with the line “He can’t keep his wild eyes off the road”. One observation I had with this album is that there appears to be the same unnamed lover addressed. I don’t pay attention to celebrities’ lives, but it’s great to find a pop album that feels personal.
We might as well just state here that so much of the song’s success (as well as the album’s) has to go to Max Martin and his production. He completely transforms Swift into the pop standout, adding a completely new dimension to her music. This song is a stellar standout.
Out of the Woods
For this song, Jack Antonoff of fun, takes the helm as co-writer and co-producer. The song is full of his sound, with guitars and booming drums. The song opens with a snare hit and processed vocals. During the verses a drumbeat and Moog synthesizer back up Swift’s vocals, and at the end of each line there’s a drum fill. All of this makes for an epic sound.
While the verse seems moody and retrospective, the chorus is uplifting as the driving synth line and Swift’s vocals swell. The drums reminded me of Hans Zimmer’s score to The Lion King.
The lyrics in the verses are marked by nostalgia, as Swift admits to reminiscing in the line “Looking at it now”. She then brings up the memory of our ever damned lover taking a Polaroid of themselves. This is followed by a simple chorus in which Swift repeatedly asks/sings “Are we out of the woods?” and “Are we in the clear yet?”. This is a maturation of the proceeding tracks, as our narrator moves away from the pessimistic outlook of her doomed relationship to a hopeful, if not desperate, plea for the relationship to last.
“Out of the Woods” is one the stronger tracks on the album, with a nice change of theme that will continue from here on out. It also ends what is a great trilogy of tracks, beginning with “Blank Space”.
All You Had to Do Was Stay
Where “Out of the Woods” was a plea of hope, “All You Had to Do Was Stay” is a vindictive pointing of the finger. Whoever this lover was, they must of really pissed off our heroine.
The song opens with Swift singing “Hey” as her voice slowly swells into the verse. The instrumentation of the first verse is quiet, with just a ringing sound. We then move into the chorus, which explodes with sound as the background vocals echo “Stay”. It’s a shining example of how to use dynamics (something that so much modern music fails to utilize) that would make Cobain proud. The second verse introduces a picking sound, guiding the song’s momentum as it progresses back to the chorus.
The song continues our maturation of the theme of doomed love, with Swift now shifting the blame away from her desires of flings, and onto the unnamed lover, who she accuses of being selfish with such lines as “People like you always want the love they gave away”. During the chorus, Swift reminds this love that all they had to do was “Stay”.
This accusation continues in the second verse as Swift sings “People like you always want back the love they pushed aside”. While the finger pointing seems a little one-side, it’s comforting to hear the narrator have a more introspective reflection of what went wrong. It’s also catchy as hell.
Shake it Off
Let’s just be honest here. “Shake it Off”, though no doubt incessantly addicting, is a straight up “Mickey” rip-off.
This isn’t to knock the song, as many artists use earlier music all the time as inspiration (although some of their use is downright plagiarism). Moreover, I will admit that “Shake it Off”, is far more listenable than “Mickey”, which has got to have one of the most annoying vocals I can think of.
The song starts off with the hit on the open hi-hat and kicks into the pocket groove on the snare and hi-hat. This is followed by Swift’s vocals and a saxophone that punctuates notes. The chorus is filled out with the holding of single notes by a horn section. The song goes completely “Mickey” with the bridge, in which Swift chants to claps.
Lyrically, the song is a departure from the maturation of the proceeding two songs, with Swift shedding off her sentiments of failed relationships and now playfully poking fun at her image in the media. Swifts tells us that everyone thinks she “stay[s] up too late” and that she “go[es] on too many dates”. She then rebukes this gossip, declaring she’s going to “Shake, shake, shake / Shake it off”.
While this was a number one hit, it’s by far the weakest track musically and lyrically. It’s fluff, and while that’s fine, pales in comparison to the rest of the tracks.
I Wish I Would
Following our interlude with “Shake it Off”, we now have a reflective Swift who sings of having lover’s regret, as the title suggests. This album is starting to remind me of Rubber Soul by the Beatles in its depiction of stages of a relationship, running from doomed pleas to stay to together all the way to regret. The song is also very Bruce Springsteen-ish in pairing depressing lyrics to uplifting music.
The track kicks off with a guitar riff followed by electric drums and Swift’s vocals. We have more inspired use of dynamics as the music crescendos during the chorus, with epic sounding drums adding to the weight of the lyrics. The second verse adds a subtle change as the synthesizer dominates over the guitar riff.
Lyrically, Swift reminisces about our past lover, lamenting “You’re thinking that I hate you now”. The chorus is even more drenched in this lamentation, with the lines “I wish you would come back / I wish I would never have hung up the phone like I did”. Whereas before she was pointing fingers, this time the blame is more inward.
While the song is enjoyable, the theme of romance is getting a little tiresome. It’s a small complaint but then again so much of poetry and fiction revolves around the nature of love. In this aspect the album is part of a long tradition.
And we’ve arrived to one of my favorite tracks of the album. The song opens with acoustic dubbed vocals, followed by a tom-tom and bass drum beat. So much of these songs are filled with these filling drums, which make for a great listen with a sound system.
As the verse begins, the by now familiar Moog synthesizer follows the rhythm. During the chorus, the instruments drop out before coming back. A guitar is added, playing chords behind the synth.
All this use of drums punctuates Swift’s lyrics, making her words a declaration that she and her lover have “had bad blood” even more dramatic. The chorus is a chant for a rally, and it’s easy to find oneself singing along. The lyrics are a little unimaginative and descriptive, with lines like “Did you have to do this?” and “Rub it in so deep / Salt in the wound like you’re laughing right at me”, but the chorus picks up the slack.
“Wildest Dream” takes the form of a ballad, with our heroine begging her lover to “Say you remember me” and “Say you’ll see me again / Even if it’s just in your wildest dreams”.
Synth drums open the song. It’s a welcome break from the driving beats of the majority of songs before, instead opting for a sweet melody that leaves room for Swift’s vocals to carry the weight of the song. The instrumentation stays the same through the chorus, with added chords played by the synthesizer.
The lyrics are filled with descriptions of the lover, such as them being “handsome as hell”. She tells the soon to be ex to remember her “Red lips and rosy cheeks” and “Standing in a nice dress, staring at the sunset”. The song is drenched in romanticism, as Swift sighs in the chorus.
“Wildest Dreams” is another display of how inward the album has become. There’s no tale of cheating or partying, just hopes about being remembered and reminiscing about playful days. An arch is developing, again much like Rubber Soul, as we go through the stages of a break up towards getting over the lover. The song brings us to the back end of the album, signaling a shift in tones away from the popier first two-thirds towards a more singer-songwriter driven style. It’s as if the album is calming down from the pent up energy of dealing with this ex-lover.
How You Get the Girl
Following our departure from the driving pop beats, “How You Get the Girl” features an acoustic guitar to carry the load. Despite her conversion to a new genre, Swift hasn’t complete shed her acoustic roots.
Thematically, the song moves away from the gloominess of the failed relationship and is more reconciling with her lover, spilling her heart with the lines “I want you for worse or better / I would wait for ever and ever”. Swift follows the chorus by singing “And that’s how it works / It’s how you get the girl”.
One of Swift’s greatest strengths as a songwriter is painting a portrait with her words. The song opens with the image of a man standing in the open door as the rain pours down in the background. It’s hopelessly romantic.
The song continues the gentleness of the previous song. It’s more reflective and sensitive, and while it does not match the catchiness of the album’s biggest hits, it is by far more rewarding (save for “Blank Space”). While Swift has certainly lived up to her venture into pop music, I hope she only dips her toes in the water and retains her singer-songwriter roots.
“This Love” is the only track on the album in which Swift is credited as the sole writer. Again, we have another song where the guitar is the basis for the melody. Instead of chords, however, there’s a nice picking pattern. Complimenting the guitar, Swift’s voices carries a feeling of yearning with her angelic voice.
The song is a lamentation of failed love. It’s fresh to hear Swift isn’t blaming her ex for all the failed romance’s problems. Swift flexes her songwriting muscles with an opening of purifying imagery with the lines “Clear blue water / High tide / Came and brought you in”. This theme of purification is reinforced by the chorus, where Swift declares “These hands had to let you go free / All this love came back to me”.
Part of the joy in Swift’s lyrics is their earnestness and innocence. In a world full of cynicism and jaded artists, Swift harks back to such acts as the Beach Boys and their playful tunes of love. In many ways, she’s the anti-Lady Gaga.
I Know Places
Tedder is back with another catchy production. The song opens with single piano notes followed by a heavy bass drum beat. Swift’s voice echoes before we’re thrown into the first verse. The drums sound like a military march, complimented by lyrics such as “They are the hunters / We are the foxes” which reflect an authoritarian theme.
All this is refuted by the uplifting chorus in which the military drumming becomes a standard rock beat. The piano rises with Swift’s vocals as she sings “I know places we won’t be found / And they’ll be chasing their tails / Trying to track us down”.
Finally, we have a song that isn’t about a failed romance, but instead a theme about a romance being frowned upon by onlookers. It reminded me of the Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”.
It’s no coincidence that both of the songs co-written by Tedder are about different themes. While his work on this album is overshadowed by his work with his band One Republic, his contribution to the album can’t be ignored.
“Clean” is by far the best track on 1989. Imogen Heap brings in a markedly different production to send off the album. The song is gentle and soothing, a perfect end to the pop energy that has come before.
The song opens with a weird ping and clang of the synthesizers, accompanied by an electric drumbeat. It’s mimics the sound of rain drops, symbolizing the song’s theme of purification. It’s a continuation from the theme of “This Love”, with a chorus that states “The rain came pouring / Down when I was drowning / That is when I was finally clean”. The imagery is continued in the second verse, when Swift swings “Let the flood carry away all my pictures of you”.
The symbolization of rebirth and cleansing through water is an old association. The Catholic Church uses water to symbolically baptize a child, washing away their sins. The metaphor is even used in the film Gravity when (SPOILERS) Sandra Bullock lands in the ocean and comes back to the shore a new person.
Like most of the tracks on the album, “Clean” is about a doomed romance, but the album ends on a bright note, as Swift sings “Gone was any trace of you / I think I am finally clean”. We’ve come a long way since “Blank Space”, when Swift warned she only meant trouble. Our love torn heroine has finally cleansed her trouble filled past and is ready to move on from the relationship. It’s a worthy maturation for Swift, one that shows promise for the future.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of 1989 is the song arrangement. The album hits off with an invitation to a new sound, dives into the driving synthesizer arrangements and themes of a doomed relationship, and slowly sheds its Moog heavy beats and settles into a gentle side of Swift, ending on sweet song to send the album off. What we have is essentially an arch that is about the stages of getting over a troubled romance. Dare I say, it’s a concept album.
Lyrically, this is well trodden ground, going back to our earliest narratives. While poets will scoff at the clichés of the lyrics, Swift and her co-writers carry on a great tradition of the recollection of love and love lost, akin to such famous poets as Shakespeare and his sonnets. While Swift’s ability and use of language is nowhere near the Bard’s league, she stands as one of the best pop songwriters (and yes, country is pop) of this generation. 1989 is a worthy entry in canon of great pop albums, one that won’t be forgotten.