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Taylor Swift releases “first” pop album: ‘1989’

| Monday, October 27, 2014

taylor-swift-web-SUSAN ZHU | The Observer

Let’s get one thing clear: Taylor Swift has always been a pop star. Sure, Swift was first introduced to America as a curly-haired Nashville teenager who sang about Tim McGraw and slamming screen doors, but even early hits like “Teardrops On My Guitar” were pop songs at heart. By the time Kanye West interrupted her acceptance speech at the 2009 VMAs, she had secured her place as one of America’s biggest pop stars.

“1989,” Swift’s fifth album, has been touted as her “first documented, official pop album.” It’s a promotional claim that feels somewhat disingenuous given her track record as one of the most consistently excellent pop songwriters of the past decade.

Her last album, 2012’s “Red,” was essentially a pop album — a great, if inconsistent, collection of songs — even if it was not documented and official. On the album, Swift tried her hand at a number of different genres, as if proposing multiple paths forward as an artist. There were vaguely-folk ballads with hints of Joni Mitchell. There were Springsteen-esque stadium anthems with soaring guitars. And of course there were top-40 smashes like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble.”

On “1989,” Swift doubles down on the last of those paths: the big, broad Max Martin-produced pop song. Martin, the Scandinavian hitmaker behind 18 number-one hits over the past 15 years, produced the album along with Swift. It’s a natural progression for the 24-year-old singer and also the least interesting route she could have taken.

On past albums, Swift’s best songs grounded universal emotions in the specificities of her own experiences. It’s hard not to think Martin’s influence smoothed off some of the rough edges and idiosyncrasies that made her songwriting so compelling. The songs off “1989” seem designed to take over the world, and I guess that’s kind of the point. It’s a decent pop album, but not a very Taylor Swift album.

That said, Martin’s production work on the album is top-notch with a glossy sheen that, despite the album’s title, sounds unquestionably like 2014. The album is indebted to the moody electropop of Lorde, whom Swift has befriended in recent months, and the vocal affectations of Lana Del Rey. Swift also mines inspiration from the indie pop of groups like Chvrches, Haim and Bleachers (whose frontman Jack Antonoff collaborated with Swift on two “1989” tracks).

Unfortunately, so many of the album’s tracks come off as offensively generic like “Welcome to New York,” an ode to Disneyfied New York where “you can want who you want.” With its cliche portrayal of the city, the song seems bound for a tourism ad in the coming months. The vindictive “Bad Blood” is a takedown of a pop rival (rumored to be Katy Perry) who “tried to sabotage [Swift’s] entire arena tour.” Ironically, it is the song that sounds the most like a Katy Perry single with its bratty chorus and gratingly corny lyrics.

The results of Swift’s pop experiment are not uniformly terrible. The fantastic “Blank Space” is a self-aware skewering of her public perception as a serial monogamist. “Got a long list of ex-lovers, they’ll tell you I’m insane,” Swift sings on the chorus. “But I’ve got a blank space, baby,” she continues, followed by the sound of a pen clicking, “and I’ll write your name.” Similarly, “Style” is an excellent, atmospheric 80s synth pop song about a guy with a “James Dean daydream look in [his] eye.” It is one of her strongest tracks to date and undeniably Swiftian, showcasing her unique storytelling ability and a clever (but not-at-all-subtle) reference to her ex Harry Styles.

“1989” is ultimately the work of an artist in transition, trying to figure out her place in the pop landscape with mixed results. It’s a minor misstep in Swift’s career as a musician — but then again, making mistakes is what your early twenties are all about.

2.5/5 shamrocks

rec tracks: “Blank Space,” “Style,” “Out of the Woods”

similar artists: Lorde, Chrvches, Lana Del Rey

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About Matthew Munhall

Matthew thinks everyone should listen to Charly Bliss.

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