To some, it was a surprise that Taylor Swift opted to go the pop route on her new album 1989, named after the year she was born, but most of her longtime listeners saw this coming a mile away. After all, Taylor’s singles have been remixed for the pop market ever since she started her career a decade ago. There was the “pop edit” version of “Fifteen,” a poppier “international version” of “Mine,” the “pop mix” of “You Belong With Me.” These are just a few of Taylor’s songs that were tweaked for the pop market. And it worked. Almost from the start, she became a crossover star. And, in some ways, it made her an outsider. To her country peers, she was too pop. And pop listeners liked her in spite of the fact that she was country’s golden girl. She never quite knew where she fit in. But she didn’t over-think this either. She’s always been one to simply write the songs that were in her heart, many of them being autobiographical, and both her country and pop fans could admire her for that. If nothing else, it was the one thing they could agree on.
On Taylor’s last album, Red, she jumped headfirst into the pop realm with a handful of very strong pop songs: “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “22.” Interestingly, she chose to release all three of these songs as singles. It was as if she was waving her middle finger at the world of country. Not in a negative way, just in a *hey, I can do whatever I want* sort of way. And pop fans ate it up, devouring these songs, setting new records for iTunes downloads, etc.
Still, at least two thirds of Red consisted of country or country pop songs, so it certainly was not as though Taylor had abandoned her country fans. She was simply inviting them along for the creative ride she was taking. And, by and large, most of her country fans were happy to follow her on this journey. I imagine there must have been some haters, but that’s something Taylor addresses beautifully on her new single, “Shake It Off.” “And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate,” she sings. “Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake / I shake it off, I shake it off.”
The album opens with “Welcome To New York,” a fitting tribute to the place Taylor now calls home (from her penthouse in TriBeca). “Like any great love, it keeps you guessing / Like any real love, it’s every changing,” she sings earnestly during the bridge. The song is laced with synth galore, peppy handclaps and loud, punchy beats. It’s fun and the State of New York would be wise to make this their new anthem.
“Blank Space” follows and proves to be an infectious pop song layered over hard, slick, hip-hop beats that sound like they’re borrowed from Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die. But that turns out to be a good thing, Taylor’s frisky pop song playing out over these beats perfectly as she sings about ex-lovers and potential lovers. “Got a long list of ex-lovers / They’ll tell you I’m insane,” she sings. “But I’ve got a blank space baby / And I’ll write your name.” It’s a fun song, but it’s also a confessional about the way Taylor loves. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. On the contrary, it’s charming to hear Taylor revealing things about herself throughout the album. If you feared going pop would find her writing generic anthems, rest assured, Taylor’s songs are as personal as ever.
Although the drum machines and programming used on 1989 are up to code (read: modern), the ’80’s were clearly a big influence when Taylor was writing (and co-writing) the album, as evidenced on “Style,” which, musically, feels like something Don Henley or Cory Hart would have put out in the ’80’s. Even the melody feels very ’80’s as Taylor sings about taking a Bonnie and Clyde style adventure. Only without the crime. Taylor isn’t one to name drop — she prefers to let people use their imaginations — but here she compares her lover, or potential lover, to James Dean.” “You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye,” she sings. “And I got that red lip, classic thing that you like.”
“Out of the Woods” is one of two songs that fun.’s Jack Antonoff co-wrote and produced (with Max Martin) and it’s easy to imagine his side-project band Bleachers performing it. It has that super imaginative indie pop vibe to it. Taylor has said that it’s about the fragility and breakable nature of some relationships. So when she sings “Are we out of the woods yet,” she’s asking her boyfriend if it’s safe for them yet, if they’re on stable ground. “Are we in the clear yet? / In the clear yet? Good.”
The other track Antonoff co-wrote and produced is “I Wish You Would,” a song that packs heaps of intensity, courtesy of his production. The music, especially during the verses, feels as though it’s trying to make the listener anxious. Those jittery little guitar bits just get under your skin. Not necessarily in a bad way, but they definitely add emotion to things. Overall, the song has such a strong sense of urgency about it, Taylor singing it so passionately over beats that mean serious business. The chorus feels slightly calmer, but the song clearly comes from a desperate place, that place we find ourselves in when we’ve ruined a relationship and wish the person would come back.
The closest 1989 comes to a country song is “This Love,” a tender ballad that begins with Taylor simply singing along to her acoustic guitar with faint synth in the background. Eventually, it adds boisterous beats that seem to reinforce the idea that “this love” is bad as they come on forcefully, as if they’re intruding on the song. The ironic thing about this song is that it’s more stirring in the beginning when there aren’t any beats than it is once there are beats and other embellishments. Call it a classic instance of less is more. In any case, the rather poetic song is easily one of the best that Taylor has ever written. “Skies grow darker, currents switch you out again / And you are just gone and gone, gone and gone / In silent screams and wildest dreams / I never dreamed of this.” You feel like you’re reading her stream of consciousness journals when you listen to this one and I wouldn’t be surprised if it actually started out as something she wrote in one (assuming, of course, that she actually writes in journals).
Some of the most interesting things about 1989 are the things Taylor doesn’t do. For starters, there’s no R&B crossover sort of song here. And no cameo by Chris Brown, who seems to be on everything these days. There aren’t any rap cameos either. Taylor doesn’t need to jump on any bandwagons to make her pop songs. It’s also noteworthy that, unlike her peers, Taylor doesn’t namedrop during her songs or try to create songs that sound like Katy Perry’s last hit. Some of the beats here might make you feel nostalgic if you grew up in the ’80’s, but, even then, they’re merely a homage to the era, not a case of someone trying to steal the generation’s sound. And if you’ve never really listened to any ’80’s music then these beats will sound wholly original to you. Granted, longtime hit-maker Max Martin came up with many of them, but these songs don’t feel like anything he’s written before, being that they’re all co-written with Taylor, who clearly told him that she didn’t want her songs to sound like anything else.
Whether or not you saw it coming, 1989 is here and it’s both fierce and pristine. It might even be the best pop album of 2014.