Sunday, October 26, 2014

1989 | Taylor Swift


★★★★☆

When she dropped her debut album eight years ago, we never predicted that Taylor Swift would one day mature from America's favorite tyke-sized country starlet to everybody's new favorite pop star. Her transformation into a true pop star was predictable from the publicized Max Martin and Shellback tracks on her last album, Red, but seemed too good to be true. She has even put away the acoustic guitar and opted to pick up a Polaroid camera to take on a faux-hipster image that fits her well. She is the first of her kind in recent years to make such a big transformation to my knowledge. While Florida-Georgia Line decided to churn out awkward re-dubs of their tracks to suit pop radio and Shania Twain embraced the safety net of country-pop, Taylor Swift bid her roots goodbye and ventured into a whole new world. Luckily, her journey wasn't in vain; she may have just had a knack for pop music all along.

Swift opens 1989 with the Ryan Tedder-assisted "Welcome to New York," a track written about her experiences as a hopeful new arrival to the Big Apple and gives some insight on the city's influences on the album. "Welcome to New York, it's been waiting for you / It's a new soundtrack / I could dance to this beat, this beat, forevermore," sings Swift as she oozes love for her new surroundings. She then decides to poke fun at her infamous dating life on "Blank Space" as she rambles off, "I've got a long list of ex-lovers / They'll tell you I'm insane / But I've got a blank space, baby, and I'll write your name." The sarcasm in this track is just as clear as that in Lily Allen's "Hard Out Here," yet thousands of members of the viral anti-Taylor Swift committee will probably have a heyday with this track.

Sarcasm seems to be Swift's new wisely-used tool, such as in her grand arrival to the scene as a full-fledged pop star: "Shake It Off." The song has been a staple on Top 40 radio for over two months now, complete with blaring horns, a "Hollaback Girl" style bridge, and the lyrical sass that brushes off any criticisms and haters. In other words, Swift came out of the closet as a pop artist with a bang. The song even opens with a mocking exclamation of "I stay out too late / Got nothing in my brain / That's what people say / I go on too many dates / But I can't make them stay / That's what people say." While self-empowerment anthems aren't revolutionary works in this day and age, Swift manages to make the most ear-catching pick-me-up since Demi Lovato's "Really Don't Care."

The songwriting on 1989 shines as Swift's best handiwork to date. While she has traditionally written her biggest hits from a bitter and accusatory position ("Picture to Burn," "Mean," "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together"), we now see Swift as a romantic storyteller (minus "Bad Blood," in which she actually comes for blood). "Style," an irresistible track driven by a sultry guitar stem and a steady drum pattern, highlights a fluid, balanced relationship: "You've got that James Dean daydream look in your eye / And I've got that red lip classic thing that you like / And when we go crashing down, we come back every time / 'Cause we never go out of style." Meanwhile in "Out of the Woods," Swift recounts an accident that she was involved in as she sings, "Remember when you hit the brakes too soon? / Twenty stitches in a hospital room / When you started crying, baby, I did too / When the sun came up, I was looking at you." 

The aforementioned "Bad Blood" is the one and only spiteful jab that Swift offers this time around but is also one of her best offerings on 1989. In a cover story with Rolling Stone, she revealed the track is not about a ex-beau, but rather a fellow musician that "basically tried to sabotage an entire arena tour." The Internet gossip-sniffing scouts quickly got to work and discovered that midst the planning of Swift's monstrous Red Tour, Katy Perry secretly hired dancers out from under Swift to go on her own concurrent tour. This feud is put into obscure phrases on "Bad Blood" that would be nondescript if it wasn't for the back story: "Band-aids don't fix bullet holes, you say sorry just for show / If you live like that, you live with ghosts." Ouch, Katy. You might want to try to let a little more light in through your prism and beam your love towards Taylor.

Lush sonic landscapes are painted behind Swift from the beginning to the end of this album. This album is a step towards an unsurprisingly synth-heavy sound that we first heard in the album's promo singles. "Out of the Woods" and "I Know Places" persuade Swift into the world of pseudo-indie pop; the former, in particular, contains echoes of vocal effects and atmospheric synth stems that transport listeners into the hazy, lonely forest being described lyrically. Guitar patterns and some driving synths on "I Wish You Would" channel a pop-oriented version of Haim, garnering a seal approval from my viewpoint. The most subtle backdrops complement Swift's vocals on her ballads: "Wildest Dreams" blossoms with drum-machine clicks and winding synths, while intricate effects shimmer over the album's flowing closer, "Clean," like rain drops on a rooftop.

For the past few album cycles, Swift was clearly turning her direction in two separate worlds to please both country and pop audiences. Red contained the most distinct splits in Swift's personality to date, as Max Martin and Shellback handicrafts somehow graced the same track-listing as country-oriented tracks like "Red," "Begin Again," and "Holy Ground." Now, her newest collaborations with the Swedish producers are right at home on 1989, in company with fellow productions from Jack Antonoff and Ryan Tedder. Swift merely hints at the late '80s influences that were said to inspire it, but more often than not, she simply brings us some fresh, modern pop tunes on her most consistent and high quality body of work to date.

1989 will be released on October 27, 2014 under Big Machine Records. An exclusive deluxe edition will be sold at Target department stores.

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