[Image via Big Machine Records]
by Chad Jewett
Throughout 1989, Taylor Swift’s fourth, best, and most interesting album, one encounters a laundry list of nouns, all lower case. Cities, pop-cultural familiarities, fashion ads, movie tropes, and ideas like “Love” and “Regret” and “Betrayal” and “Coming Of Age” are dealt with as archetypes and abstractions. White t-shirts, red lipstick, svelte skirts, “classic things”: all populate the album as though it were a hardcover collection of classic glossy magazine covers. One song is called “How You Get The Girl,” which sounds like the sort of archly clever post-modernism that drives indie romantic comedies overly familiar with their own wit. Swift operates in a similar world – stuff that’s inoffensive and smarter than its competition and striving to make art out of plastic.
One can’t doubt, or fail to admire, how much the singer-songwriter seems to care about making great albums. And Taylor Swift, as expansive a populist as we’ve seen in years, might just have the capaciousness that comes with all those archetypes in mind. There’s reason to bristle at the kind of myopia that turns a city as complex as New York into a rite-of-passage, and there’s reason to be perplexed by a song called “Style” that doesn’t have much to say on the topic besides its potential joys; but, Swift and her team of producers and co-writers seem to be designing something just specific enough to be interesting and just blank enough to be colored in at will. That song about the Big Apple (“Welcome To New York”)? Its chorus is huge and its sense of wonder is charming. The aforementioned “Style”? It mixes jittery minor-key Lindsey Buckingham post-disco and major-key big tent choruses with appealing élan. Taylor is right – this is stuff that “never goes out of style,” and 1989 is at its best when convincing you to get swept up in it the way Swift seemingly is.
There are certain things that 1989 is not. The album isn’t especially original in its choice of retroisms, especially considering the seemingly never-ending vogue for computerized 1980s sheen that has yielded great albums from Vampire Weekend, Blood Orange, Haim, and Daft Punk just last year, and has proven productive for scores of artists for at least a decade now. Swift makes the sounds of the album’s titular era work for her – the record sounds great end-to-end, featuring the same high fidelity, textured tangibility that was the saving grace of Justin Timberlake’s undercooked 20/20 Experience – but trying to make a story out of the album’s fondness for mid-career Fleetwood Mac, golden-era Madonna and Whitney Houston, and cross-over New Wave sounds a bit too unaware of how much this aesthetic has already been synthesized, even if Swift excels with the material in ways that others haven’t. The better point – which the album’s sounds and sense of momentum make for themselves – is how much fun the twenty-five year old singer is having with this stuff, with the thrill of discovery.
The album (and the PR narratives surrounding it) is also not terribly savvy. Swift has, endearingly, refused to ever show any pretense toward coolness – again, part of her commitment to being all things to all people while being a jerk to no one – but that wide-eyed innocence doesn’t necessarily dispel the accidental audacity of “Welcome To New York.” The song as a piece of audio is an excellent, finely-crafted three minutes of pop (managing to borrow from two Robyn bangers – “Call Your Girlfriend” and “Dancing On My Own” – at once), but its story, wherein Swift tells herself that the city has simply been “waiting for” her is tough to swallow. Why not say you’ve been waiting for it? The song saps New York of its diversity and complexity in order to work in the sort of fantasia that Truman Capote constructs in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, but lacks that novella’s saving-grace irony. But the flip-side, of course, is that Holly Golightly remains our American Cinderella and Swift is aware of that. Further, that character’s New York-via-the-humble-South narrative is (not coincidentally) precisely the one that informs 1989. Indeed, it’s a welcome moment when Taylor breaks with Nashville cultural conservatism to mention how “You can want who you want: Boys and Boys and Girls and Girls”.
Elsewhere “Out Of The Woods” and “Shake It Off” (the album’s best song and its most joyful) plumb either ends of the modernist pop zeitgeist, the former taking the gloomy atmospherics of Lorde for a stroll through the stadium as the latter polishes the fleet pop moments of Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires Of The City (that pre-chorus melody sounded great on “Diane Young” and still does) and Fun’s Some Nights into a Kenny Loggin-s style anti-cool anthem. Fun/Bleachers soundscultper Jack Antonoff goes ultra-maximalist on “Out Of The Woods” but Swift’s voice – capable of moving humanity despite the stack of computers – and detail-rich narrative manage to cut through all the scale-tipping baroque samples, outsized drums, and THX synthesizers.
The album closes with “Clean”, a reserved, minimalist piece of indie-electro co-written and produced by Imogen Heap whose expertise in gleaning humanity from the synthetic finds an ideal partner in Taylor Swift’s similar gifts. The song’s chorus soars, more committed to a simple, gorgeous melody than the blunt, catchphrase-y hooks that populate most of the album (oddly, choruses come up a bit short throughout 1989), and the open space of “Clean” allows Swift room to stretch out, ultimately moving the retro-futurism of 1989 to her own center of gravity. It’s a beautifully airy denouement to an album that is excitedly cluttered, a glimpse of newfound confidence amongst a dozen songs that are gleefully taken with both the rush and anxiety of the new. It’s good fun to hear Swift finding herself in these sounds and stances. It’s even better, listening to “Clean”, to glimpse what she might do next time around, once she has these new neighborhoods all figured out.