Taylor Swift spent her first four albums offering up stunningly confessional songs, filled with tabloid-ready details about her all-too-public personal life and the often-raw emotions that accompanied them. That stops on “1989” (Big Machine).
Instead of the intimate details about what is believed to be the collapse of her relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal in his sister Maggie’s Park Slope town house, we get the blankly upbeat “Welcome to New York.” Rather than the very direct “Dear John” assault against former beau John Mayer, we get the slightly more veiled “Bad Blood,” which seems to be about a squabble with Katy Perry, also a Mayer ex, and cleverly swipes bits of Perry-like production.
Yes, Swift is learning how to keep her private life more private. Luckily, her growing skills as a songwriter more than make up for any disappointment gossip-hunting fans may have.
Swift calls “1989” her “first documented, official pop album,” leaving country completely behind for the first time in her career. She has taken the music of 1989, the year she was born, as her inspiration, so there are plenty of bubbly synths and dance beats delivered with the same crisp pop production that made the album’s first single “Shake It Off” so irresistible.
The anti-hater, pro-dancing anthem is the prime example of T. Swizzle 2.0. It’s upbeat in the face of adversity, more universal, but still specific to her, and so well-crafted that it’s hard to forget, no matter how hard you try to shake, shake, shake, shake it off.
The production of “Style” owes a lot to Debbie Gibson and Martika for its sleek, midtempo giggliness, especially in the verses where she lets words hang for measures instead of most of today’s, tongue-twisting, syllable-packed style. The dynamics are still current, though, as she delivers “We never go out of style” with the conviction of a U2 album.
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That’s one of Swift’s greatest skills. You can feel her pain and uneasiness in “Out of the Woods” as she repeats “Are we out of the woods yet? Are we in the clear yet?” like a mantra.
The shot of Swift dancing and singing along to other stars’ songs has become an awards show staple. But “1989” shows that she has been paying attention as she enjoys herself.
There’s a lot of Lana Del Rey in the styling of the verses of “Wildest Dreams,” but Swift doesn’t dwell in the darkness for long.
On “Blank Space,” she puts her own twist on the hip-hop-tinged pop of Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop.” Swift’s version is still dancey, but it’s sweeter, with a dash of ‘80s innocence instead of new-millennium genre-busting. It’s also a better-constructed song.
There are some uncharacteristic stumbles, though. “Welcome to New York” may be a well-meaning ode to her new adopted home, but it feels a little too processed, especially as the album’s opener. Her take on a Rihanna-styled ballad “I Know Places” doesn’t quite ring true either as she declares “They are the hunters, we are the foxes.”
But the fact that she takes that risk is still praiseworthy, even if she doesn’t quite connect.
There is, after all, plenty of pressure on Swift to land 2014’s first million-selling non-soundtrack album. That’s a pretty safe bet, considering her last two albums have sold a million copies in their first week and, even with the music industry’s ongoing slide toward streaming sites like Spotify and Pandora, it’s not out of the question for “1989.”
More importantly, “1989” shows that Swift has more than enough artistic creativity to craft extraordinary pop music without strip-mining her personal life to do it. This is her most cohesive album yet, state-of-the-art pop that raises the bar for all pop stars, especially those who need a whole assembly line of songwriters and producers to build something a fraction as strong as “1989.” And it’s also one pretty grand good-time dance party.